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Theater review: Book mystery sends librarian on quest

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
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‘Underneath the Lintel’

WHERE: Barrington Stage Company/Stage 11, 36 Linden, St., Pittsfield, Mass.

WHEN: Through July 26

HOW MUCH: $30-$25

MORE INFO: (413) 236-8888 or go to www.barringtonstageco.org.

— Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 is doing what it does best: It is presenting “Underneath the Lintel,” a creative, quirky, clever play written by Glen Berger.

If you are not familiar with Berger’s name, you probably live without little kids in your life. Berger is head writer for “Fetch,” one of PBS’ most intelligent children’s programs and one beloved by an adored 6-year-old who visits me on a regular basis. He also writes for the PBS series “Arthur” and its spin-off “Postcards from Buster.” All this said, you might guess I have warm feelings in my heart for this masterful playwright, and “Underneath the Lintel” does not disappoint.

In 1986 — that is before computers dominated our lives — a Dutch librarian, superbly played by Glynis Bell, discovers a book that is 113 years overdue. It has been slipped into the overnight slot—a no-no in library circles. Overdues are to be brought to the desk and manfully admitted to. And fines must be paid!

The librarian becomes incensed by the borrower’s indifference to long-established library policies and becomes determined to seek out his or her descendants. It becomes apparent, however, that she is not so much interested in the enormous fine that will enhance the library’s coffers but in the identity of the borrower. Her quest becomes an obsession that leads her all over the world, loses her her position at the library and her pension, and takes on the elements of the best mystery stories and a timeless religious parable.

Sharply directed by Andrew Volkoff, Bell hits all the notes. If you are of a certain age, you may recall the repressed and terrifying librarians of a simpler time. When they held a stiff finger to their pursed lips and, with fiercely angry eyes, demanded quiet, you immediately became quiet. Bell is, of course, all that. But as she delves into the mystery she reveals her own story. Her repression lifts and her spirit emerges—along with an unexpected spirituality. Bell’s ninety-minute performance—moving constantly without once sitting down (and this, too, is an element of the play’s theme) — is grand and riveting.

Brian Prather’s set, a hall the librarian has rented in which to tell her story, is reminiscent of a dilapidated theater, with all sorts of amorphous and accidental junk piled in corners. It is brilliant for its evocation of the accidents that shape our lives.

 
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