Bucks County Playhouse, known about 60 years ago as a theatrical playground where high-level talent could flex muscles by trying out new work or taking on new roles, regained some of that brio last week when the world premiere of Terrence McNally's "Mothers and Sons" opened there for a 14-performance run, with Tyne Daly as a leading player.
That's a big step.
It's been only about 18 months since the nonprofit Bridge Street Foundation, owned by Kevin and Sherri Dougherty of Doylestown, reopened the shuttered Bucks County Playhouse after a spiffy $3 million renovation.
The playhouse originally opened three quarters of a century back when big names on Broadway — people who kept country homes in Bucks County — rescued an old grist mill from being destroyed and turned it into a theater.
Rise and fall
Over time, the playhouse became a test stage for new work on its way to Broadway, with Robert Redford, Angela Lansbury, Grace Kelly, Walter Matthau and many other performers appearing. But it fell into disrepair, lost its status with the professional union Actors' Equity and finally shut a few years back.
Reopening last year came with high hopes when Jed Bernstein — a Broadway producer who also led the Broadway League, the umbrella group of all Broadway producers — came to Bucks County to be the producing director of the revived Bucks County Playhouse.
"We set out in reviving this theater and this playhouse to try to return to as many first principles as we could," Bernstein says. "And those first principles for us were certainly to have the most professional companies we could, which meant becoming an Actors' Equity playhouse again. It meant returning to live music here. The fact they were doing musicals to tape was just horrifying."
It also meant presenting new work by visible playwrights — which is where McNally comes in.
McNally has four Tony Awards, one for his play "Master Class" which had its world premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company; another for "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and one each for his books to the musicals "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Ragtime."
His wasn't the first new work at the re-opened playhouse — that was a stage adaptation of Stephen King's thriller "Misery" last year. But McNally's new play was, as Bernstein says, a theatrical event.
"Terrence got inspired about writing a whole new play, which was sort of more than I ever could have imagined," he said. "For any theater to have a new Terrence McNally play is thrilling — and a theater with the kind of history that we have here in Bucks County, it's especially thrilling — because it was one of the pillars of how this theater was built, with new work."
For McNally and Bernstein, both denizens of Broadway, the benefits of opening a new play in a regional theater are obvious.
"If we were going to do this on Broadway," says Bernstein, "it would be $3 million and months and months of preparation. Here, Terrence can get hopefully a terrific production — we're working as far as we can to give him that — to learn how finished this play is or isn't in his mind, and what life it's going to take on next."
Amenable to new works
"Mothers and Sons" is a play about acceptance and denial. It involves a mother — the role Tyne Daly played.
She pays a surprise visit to the man who had been her son's partner until her son died of AIDS more than two decades back. "Mothers and Sons" is McNally's fifth world premiere in Philadelphia with the other four at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.
He says Philadelphians are open to new work.
"They don't seem to have an agenda you know, I think that's the word — they seem fair," says McNally. "New York audiences, I think, come with a slight 'show-me' attitude which is challenging about New York, one of the things I like about it — it is a tough city and I don't think theater is easy.
"And it doesn't bother me that I think a New York audience is tough. I wish they were little more less judgmental when they got there. Sometimes, And in Philadelphia I never felt 'show-me,' but eagerness to be there. They're proud in Philadelphia, I feel, to have some theater companies, very regarded ones, who are doing new and challenging work and I think they understand their importance to supporting this kind of work."
At the end of the year, Bucks County Playhouse will be at a crossroads once more. Jed Bernstein has been tapped for a major new position — he'll become the president of New York's Lincoln Center, and will leave his job at the playhouse.
"This place's best years are ahead of it, so I'm sorry to be leaving in the sense that it's so fun to think up stuff and put on shows and people come see them," says Bernstein. "But I'm equally excited, of course, about what I'm going to do at Lincoln Center — it's a great challenge.
"But this theater, it's on the right, on the right pillars now, and it's going to be sturdy and it's going to be successful. And my last job before I turn out the lights in this office on Dec. 31 is to make sure that my successor is five times the producer that I am — and that's what I'm dedicated to right now, to find that person.
And so the plot at Bucks County Playhouse, which has had its share of drama, continues.