Carey Perloff is embarking on a new stage in her distinguished career.
Coming up this summer, the theater director’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” starring Uma Thurman, begins its run July 31 at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Perloff is no stranger to the stage, describing her home life in her younger years as a “literary Jewish family, loving culture, reading, language and visual arts.”
She studied dance growing up, and thought about becoming an archeologist — an interest she shared with her cardiologist father.
It was a female mentor and lifelong friend, Professor Helene P. Foley, who opened the way to Perloff’s theatrical imagination. Perloff laughs, saying, “I backed into theater.”
Foley’s freshman year course, which Perloff took, had students learn ancient Greek so that they could read and perform the legendary classical Greek plays in the original language. It was this disciplined and outre experience that propelled Perloff into the wild world of theater.
Today, Perloff is one of the country’s foremost theater directors.
After successfully running New York City’s off-Broadway Classic Stage Company for seven years, Perloff took on the role of artistic director for 25 years at American Conservatory Theater, one of San Francisco’s premier arts institutions. There she managed the theater’s artistic identity and her own creative endeavors all the while raising $31 million in order to rebuild A.C.T.’s earthquake damaged Geary Theater. During her tenure at A.C.T., Perloff directed over 50 shows, including an unusual amount of new and commissioned productions, and wrote a number of books, including “Beautiful Chaos: A Life in the Theater” about the challenges of raising a family when combined with a career in theater.
In a statement she said, “I am truly excited to finally have the chance to explore my own work — as a director, playwright, and book author — without carrying all of the administrative burdens of an institution.”
Her upcoming gig at Williamstown fits right in. Founded in 1954, the Tony Award-winning WTF is one of the nation’s most highly regarded summer theaters, and it’s located nearby Boston in the summer arts haven, the Berkshires. One can regularly see journeymen actors share the stage with well-known performers, including Bradley Cooper, Nathan Lane, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Walken.
Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Mandy Greenfeld offered a slot for Perloff to join them this season. Greenfeld thought Perloff might have a play “in mind” to direct, and Perloff did, suggesting Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” Greenfield said it would need a new translation, and Perloff was ready. While still at A.C.T., she had commissioned a new translation of Ibsen’s work, from the Norwegian, into English by Paul Walsh.
“Ghosts” takes place over the course of one afternoon, evening and following morning. “It has many echoes of ancient Greek theater yet it’s also very contemporary and Pinter-esque,” Perloff reflects. “Buried in the play is a secret that unfolds — a crime from the past that haunts the present, just as you find in ‘Oedipus Rex.’ There’s a son, Oswald, who returns home after many years, and ultimately must expiate the crimes of his father.”
Greenfield had a couple of actors in mind for the lead role, and Perloff was able to put together a fine cast.
“In the process of casting, I spoke with Uma Thurman, and it was clear she deeply understood the play,” Perloff says. “Her character, Mrs. Alving, grapples with the conflict between acknowledging the past and running away from it, between duty and joy, between truth and denial. Uma has great ferocity and sexuality, but also vulnerability, real intelligence and discipline, which she’ll put into action playing this role — which has the breadth and scope of a female ‘King Lear.’ Uma was hungry to return to the stage, after her Broadway role in ‘The Parisian Woman, last season and her turn as Celimene in ‘The Misanthrope’ at CSC Repertory many years ago. I can’t wait to see where she goes with Mrs. Alving.”
Perloff, a playwright herself, brings insight, verve, discipline and risk to the shows she chooses to direct. Williamstown’s “Ghosts” should be exciting, whether you’re in the neighborhood or take a trip to the Berkshires to get yourself there.
Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts”
Main Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main St, Williamstown, Mass.
July 31 – August 18