When Weston Playhouse announced its 2019 season this week, it seemed a bit careful for Susanna Gellert’s first year at the helm. After all, “The Fantasticks,” Oklahoma!” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” this year’s main stage productions, are hardly controversial. Or are they?
“There are moments in time when a theater’s role is really to provoke and challenge, to make people have the scales fall from their eyes,” Gellert said recently by phone. “But I think whatever end of the political spectrum you might slide towards, the scales are very fallen from everyone’s eyes. We’re struggling with talking with each other.
“I really set out to look for ways this season could make people feel good about being in a room together,” she said.
Weston’s executive artistic director since last fall, Gellert came from New York’s Theatre for a New Audience, where she was associate producer. Here, she replaced the legendary triumvirate of Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort and Steve Stettler, who reigned together as Weston’s artistic directors after 30 years.
For Gellert, there’s no such thing as apolitical art. “Oklahoma!,” the 1943 hit by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, is the quintessential American musical, but it’s hardly saccharine sweet.
“Here’s a group of pioneers setting out to make a new community, and what they’re really doing is saying who gets to be in it and who’s out,” Gellert said. “We’re kicking out the peddler from the Middle East, and kicking out the oddball farmhand, and we’re keeping the cowboy.
“There’s a real interrogation as to what it takes to make community in America, and that I find really edgy,” Gellert said.
That’s also true of “The Fantasticks,” the 1960 show about young love by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones that ran off-Broadway for 42 years, making it the longest-running musical in history.
“Can you think of a more romantic, sweet musical?” asked Gellert, who will direct. “But it does center around one woman on stage, and an entire community of men who are pushing her around. At the end, there’s a moment when she starts making choices.”
But for Gellert, it’s not a feminist show at all.
“It reminds me so much of Shakespeare,” she said. “When you read a Shakespeare play you think, oh, it’s a short little play, but then you dig and dig, and it just doesn’t stop. And I love that it’s fathers and children — there are human relationships that are not hard to understand.”
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece about a battling middle-aged couple that has a decidedly darker side. It is best known for the excellent 1966 Mike Nichols film adaptation starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
“It’s challenging, and it’s so dark, but I find it a little bit funny, too,” Gellert said. “I’ve seen it many times where it was not funny, where it is only the dark side, but it’s hysterical — it’s hysteria — which I love about it. I firmly believe that George and Martha are together at the end of this play, and in some kind of love.
“It’s sort of the flip side of ‘Fantasticks.’ It’s kind of, well, this is love, too.”
This will be the second year for Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm, the company’s intimate new configurable theater down the road. The Young Company will present its production of “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a musical based on the Norman Juster classic, beginning the season at Walker Farm.
“It’s the parents who know that novel, who read it growing up, who will be bringing their kids,” Gellert said. “It’s that moment in childhood when you feel like an adult, but you’re not there yet. It’s a fun show.”
“Always … Patsy Cline” is a country musical based on the true story of the star’s friendship with a Houston housewife.
“It’s a juke-box musical, which brings people together,” Gellert said. “It’s like you’re in a Texas honky-tonk together.
“We’ve been doing music events at Walker, having people come out and dance in the aisles. We’ll see what happens when we bring that into the summer,” she said.
Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You” is an intimate, tender romance with an unexpected twist.
“It so happens she’s the most-produced playwright in America right now,” Gellert said. “When I first came across this play — I’m not a person who laughs or cries very often when I’m alone reading — I did both. I find her language so sharp and true and honest. And that twist — it hit me very hard.”
Certainly the most unusual play of the season is Paula Vogel’s 2015 “Indecent,” the last in Weston Playhouse’s American Masters Series, which recounts the controversy surrounding the 1920s Polish play “God of Vengeance.”
“That play was written by a Jewish playwright about a brothel owner, a devout Jew, and his daughter who falls in love with one of the prostitutes,” Gellert said. “It was performed all over Europe, where it was very successful, but when it went to Broadway it was shut down by the police — because of the two people falling in love.
“Paula Vogel’s play tells the story of that trajectory from Poland to America, but really what it does is it looks at the history of theater in the 20th century,” Gellert said. “So it’s a really stunning picture (of) the power of art.”