With coronavirus jitters everywhere, as well as talk of cancellations, from the Olympics to South by Southwest, it’s hard to be optimistic about the months to come. But Christopher Ostrom, the producing artistic director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, is feeling confident and proud. The 2020 season will be his third in charge of WHAT, and the company is now in a good place, financially and creatively. Morale is high.
Last year was the 35th anniversary of its founding. “It was a very ambitious season in terms of the volume and scale of the productions,” Ostrom says. “We wanted to honor the legacy.” The historical comedy Lenin’s Embalmers pushed the envelope, the farcical whodunit Murder for Two dazzled with energy and charm, and the September pairing of Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros and the comedy Orson’s Shadow — about Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and critic Kenneth Tynan putting on a production of Rhinoceros — both respected WHAT’s legacy for theatrical heft and showcased some fine performances. “Yule for Fuel” returned, WHAT for Kids! was renewed, and overall there was a sense that WHAT, with its extravagant and hard-to-fill Julie Harris Stage, was no longer, like Broadway, a “fabulous invalid.”
“It’s been a great adventure,” Ostrom says. “This year we’re still honoring the legacy of what this company has stood for. Yes, it’s still relevant. How do we keep the experience meaningful?”
To start, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal will play from June 12 through July 3. The 1978 play is the story of a husband and wife and of the affair between the wife and the husband’s good friend, which ruptures their relationships and leaves them bitter and cold. What makes Betrayal out of the ordinary, even for Pinter, is that it’s told going backwards in time: it starts at the end of the affair and ends at the beginning, with all three characters full of desire and hope. The effect is heartbreaking. “You feel their loss,” Ostrom says. “If it were told chronologically, you wouldn’t feel that.” Dana Greenfield, who did The Rose Tattoo at the 2018 Tennessee Williams festival, directs.
From July 10 through July 31, in the heart of the summer, WHAT will present The Who’s Tommy, Des McAnuff’s Broadway musical adaptation of Pete Townsend and the Who’s 1969 rock opera, about the “deaf-dumb-and-blind boy” who’s a pinball wizard, teen idol, and emotional cripple. “The album was 50 years old last year,” Ostrom says. “The stage show is 30 years old this year. We’re finding a new way to look at a classic. RJ Tolan, who directed Lenin’s Embalmers,has reconceived the piece as being more about the family unit. He sees it as a chamber piece. On the surface, Tommy is a departure for us: this flashy Broadway musical. But if you go back to the album, take away the Broadway-ness of it, it was very personal for Pete Townsend — a way for him to work out his demons and find his humanity.”
Hillary and Clinton arrives on Aug. 7 and runs through Aug. 28, and comes straight from Broadway, where it played last year with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow as you-know-who … sort of. Even though it’s set during the New Hampshire primary in 2008 (in which Hillary defeated Barack Obama), the play, by Lucas Hnath, is fictional, and not about the Clintons in the news. “It really has nothing to do with politics,” Ostrom says. “It’s about the dynamics of a marriage and how we struggle to find an identity within a relationship.” Daisy Walker directs.
From Sept. 4 through Sept. 25, The Mountaintop takes the stage. Katori Hall’s play is about Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he chats up a young woman who brings him room service. He has just given his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in support of a local strike by sanitation workers, and he spends the night wondering about his legacy. “It was on Broadway, with Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson,” Ostrom says.
Fade closes the WHAT season, with a run from Oct. 2 through Oct. 18, directed by Katherine M. Carter. “Fade is the story of a young woman who was raised in Mexico with a tremendous amount of privilege,” Ostrom says. “She gets hired on a TV show as a writer to make sure there aren’t any Mexican-American stereotypes. She befriends the only other brown face around — a janitor, who helps her write scripts.” The play, by Tanya Saracho, “deals with race and class without being preachy. It was a production of Trinity Rep in Providence. Tanya was a student at B.U. with me. You could tell she was going to take off and do incredible things.”
The last three plays are by “three young American playwrights from very diverse backgrounds,” Ostrom says. “It’s a meaty season, in that there are weighty topics in it. But it’s delicious, succulent. It came about very organically — I didn’t set out to produce a season that’s topical. I wanted it to be very eclectic. As soon as people have figured out what you do, you’ve failed. I want to keep people curious about what’s happening here.”
Season packages are now available at what.org and the box office: (508) 349-9428, or Thursday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. at 2357 Route 6 in Wellfleet.