BENNINGTON -- Starting this Friday, Nov. 1, the Oldcastle Theatre will close out its inaugural season on Main Street with a three-weekend run of "Grandma Moses: An American Primitive," a biographical play with strong local ties.
"Grandma Moses lived very nearby, in Eagle Bridge and Cambridge and Greenwich, New York, and the Grandma Moses Schoolhouse is at the (Bennington) Museum, so it seemed ideal," said Eric Peterson, Oldcastle's Producing Artistic Director, who is also directing the play. "Oldcastle has always tried to do plays that have to do with our region" he continued, "we try to do things that speak directly to our audience."
Written by television writer Stephen Pouliot, the play toured nationally four different times in the 1990s with Cloris Leachman (of the Mary Tyler Moore show and many others) playing the title character.
Peterson said he has been interested in the play since he first heard about it, but he had a hard time tracking down a copy of Pouliot's unpublished script. At one point, Peterson said he called Pouliot directly to find it, but even the author didn't have a copy. "That astonished me." said Peterson. "I said ‘well it must be in your computer,' and he said he wrote it before he even had a computer!"
Grandma Moses will be played by Christine Decker, who has appeared in several Oldcastle productions and grew up not far from the farm where her character lived.
"As a native of Cambridge, New York, with a grandfather who was a dairy farmer in Eagle Bridge and a mother who is an artist, I feel I have much in common with Anna Mary Moses" said Decker in a press release. "My mother, Joyce Decker, met ‘Grandma' on several occasions and was struck by her honesty and humility regarding the publicity of her paintings."
Opposite Decker, Peter Langstaff plays many of the men in Moses' long life, including her brother, father, husband, the art lover who discovered her and the gallery owner who turned Grandma Moses into a cultural icon.
Like his co-star, Landstaff has his own personal connections to Grandma Moses.
"In the ‘40s and ‘50s my grandmother, Helen C. Beers, was a well-known painter, particularly in still life. She and Grandma Moses became well-acquainted, and soon became fast friends. They used to paint together" said Landstaff in a press release.
"I remember meeting Grandma Moses at least once" Langstaff explained. "The two things I remember (I was 3 years old at the time) were she was very sweet and that she was the wrinkliest person I had ever seen."
Even the director Peterson discovered a family link to the painter, saying, "I discovered that my mother-in-law met Grandma Moses on several occasions, and knew her family. Everybody from the Greenwich, Cambridge and Eagle Bridge area seemed to have a connection with her."
The play opens in 1905, when Anna Mary Moses was 45 years old, living with her husband and children in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Her husband, Thomas, decides the family should return to New York, where they settle in Eagle Bridge. The second act opens on Grandma Moses 100th birthday in 1960, when she is a celebrated artist with worldwide fame.
"I've heard about Grandma Moses all my life, and its just a remarkable story" said Peterson. "I was alive when she was alive, and she remembered hearing that President Lincoln had been shot. She really didn't start to paint seriously - and even then not seriously - until she was 67 years old. And then she had a long career of almost 30 years, before she died at 101."
The play follows Moses' career into the era of post-WWII commercialism, which affected her legacy significantly.
"One of the things that fascinates me about the play is there's Grandma Moses: the artist, and then there's Grandma Moses: the product. It's a very American story" says Peterson. "There's a scene in the play where the agent is getting a call about whether there could be a Grandma Moses bubble bath. They used her image and her work in so many different ways. It's art and capitalism right together. There are some wonderful things about it and some less-wonderful things about it, but it's a fascinating story. I think a lot of people will be surprised at just how much story there is."
Originally written for large theaters, Peterson explained that it has been a challenge adapting the show to Oldcastle's intimate space on Main Street. "We haven't changed anything in the script, but our approach is very different," he said. "It's not a multi-media show like it was, although we are showing some of her work. Bill Aupperlee, who designed the set, said "we're going to depend on the story, and we're going to tell the story."
Oldcastle has also partnered with the nearby Bennington Museum to further enhance the Grandma Moses experience. Located just up the road from the theater, the museum contains the largest public collection of Moses' work, including some of her early "yarn paintings" and the tilt-top table that she used as her easel, all on year-round exhibition. Jamie Franklin, curator of the Bennington Museum, will be on hand after the 8 p.m. showing on Thursday, Nov. 7, and the 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Nov. 9, to engage the audience in a discussion about the life of Grandma Moses, the museum's collection of her work and the myths that surround her life story.
During the run of the play, theatergoers with a receipt from the museum will save $5 on tickets to the play, and Oldcastle receipts will be good for $2 off the entry price to the museum.
To emphasize Grandma Moses' local connection, Oldcastle has also invited members of the Moses family to attend the performances and "offer advice and counsel," and on opening night there will be a display from the Agricultural Stewardship Foundation, a New York organization that recently succeeded in preserving Grandma Moses' farm.
The play opens on Friday, Nov. 1 and runs every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening at 8 p.m. through the weekend of Nov. 17. There will also be 2 p.m. matinees every Thursday, Saturday and Sunday during the run.
For further information on "Grandma Moses: An American Primitive" please call Oldcastle at 802-447-1267 or visit their website at www.oldcastletheatre.org.
Follow Jack McManus on twitter at @Banner_Arts and reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org