BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company artistic director Nathan Stith likes to say that one of the greatest lessons coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic is how incredibly important human connection truly is.
Stith and was given the opportunity to showcase this imperative to the rest of the world in Oldcastle’s season opening production, “Visiting Mr. Green,” by Jeff Baron, which Stith also directed.
In the play, an 86-year-old widower, Mr. Green (Richard Howe), is nearly run down by a car driven by young corporate executive Ross Gardiner (Dean Linnard). Found guilty of reckless driving, Ross is sentenced to six months of weekly visits to Mr. Green, ostensibly to assist him with whatever life needs arise.
What starts off as a comedy about two people who resent being in the same room together develops into tense drama, as family secrets are revealed and old wounds are opened.
Stith made good on his human promise as his players tackled the script with the grace, dignity and empathy Baron’s script deserved.
Linnard, an Oldcastle newcomer, showed why this probably won’t be his last appearance with this venerable company. His Ross had the power and impetuous nature of youth, yet the gentleness one would expect in a period of personal growth and transformation. His stage presence was commanding, yet did not swallow his older, more frail companion.
To that end, I’ve watched Howe on stage for more than two decades, and I feel confident declaring his Mr. Green one of his top three all-time performances. I can imagine Howe himself joking that since he is that much older, he can pull off a role of octogenarian much more easily now that when I first saw him perform. Still, Howe showed he still has what it takes to deliver such a convincing display of age and frailty, right down to every painful wobble and weave of his sinewy frame.
Carl Sprague once again set the standard for set design and Ursula McCarty’s expert eye on costumes captured the generational difference one would expect. Lights by David V. Groupe and sound by Cory Wheat grasped the poignant moments throughout, and gave us surreal chills in depicting falling rain from the window and convincingly crashing thunder in a pitch black theater. Kristine Schlachter’s stage management was tight.
The return from almost two years in darkness with this sort of play and these actors is a tribute to Oldcastle, as well as to Stith himself. It’s his first season at the helm after replacing the legendary Eric Peterson, one of the company’s co-founders nearly a half-century ago.
Oldcastle is the one local company that didn’t have an outdoor venue available to launch its season. As such, it had to carry on indoors adhering to outdated Actor’s Equity Association one-size fits-all COVID protocols. Hopefully these rules will be relaxed soon, as they seemed out of place in Vermont, which leads the nation with its high vaccination and low case rates.
Putting that to the side, Stith, Howe and Linnard and the rest of Oldcastle stood tall by staging a visceral “Visiting Mr. Green” that reminds all of us why, at this point in time and place, human connection, empathy and love are what we all need most.
“Visiting Mr. Green” by Jeff Baron and directed by Nathan Stith, is running through July 18 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St., Bennington. Indoor pod seating and masks required. Tickets: call the box office at 802-447-05654 or visit oldcastletheatre.org