Risk-taking theater Hole in the Wall hosts a wild but dark family barbecue – Hartford Courant
New Britain’s Hole in the Wall Theater has been a distinctive part of the local theater scene for half a century. It didn’t last as long by being tame or mainstream. Easy to find in downtown New Britain, the neatly designed black box takes risks with its program choices that even Connecticut’s major regional theaters don’t. More recently, that means aggressive and difficult (but often very fun) work from the likes of Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard and Qui Nguyen.
Hole in the Wall was designed to take such risks. Those who work on shows there become voting members at the general assemblies that decide the theater’s seasons. There are generally seven shows a year plus showcases and other events. Any member can suggest a show, and the suggestions are voted on by the entire membership. This leads to a diversity that eludes theaters with smaller management teams.
This week, Hole in the Wall hosts the state’s first production of Robert O’Hara’s “Barbecue.” It’s a disarming, disorienting, and swearword-filled family drama written with multiple shifting social perspectives. A detailed description might reveal its unexpected twists, but audiences should be prepared for some loud arguments and harsh truths.
Longtime Hole in the Wall member Teresa Langston suggested and is directing “Barbecue.” She has never seen the show and was originally introduced to it before it had its first major production.
“A friend was asked to do the script for a workshop before it was on Steppenwolf,” explains Langston. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, known for creating great new American plays, commissioned “Barbecue,” though its 2015 world premiere was at New York’s Public Theater.
“I was looking for plays written for everyone. When I read that, I couldn’t put it down. It had me from the start. We try to be more diverse at Hole in the Wall and that has a diversity of races, generations and orientations. And it’s a satire, which we don’t often do. It’s dark, but also very hilarious and completely unpredictable. There is nothing on this show that is not surprising. It doesn’t fit into an easy category. It doesn’t follow the normal rules of theater except that there may be an intermission.”
Langston’s relationship with Hole in the Wall goes back decades, with some big gaps. She has both acted and directed for the company.
“I was president of the organization for a few years in the ’90s, but I was burned out from the intense work plus family and job. Then I got drawn more into the New Haven theater scene. Then I lived in Vermont for 12 years where there are so many great small businesses. When I moved back to Connecticut, not many community theaters were seeing new works. You don’t see much that is contemporary. This is a very offbeat script about addiction and recovery.
“So Hole in the Wall pulled me back. I got to play Amanda in The Glass Menagerie which was on my wish list and had a great experience. This theater has many strengths. With open membership, the same handful of people aren’t in charge. There is always new energy coming in. But you also have to go through a serious process to complete your show.”
“The whole idea of the company when it started 50 years ago was not to have a clique running it,” says Langston. Hole in the Wall made sure it was open to the public too.
“50 years ago they were already worried about the entrance fee, which shuts people out.”
Shows have a suggested donation of $25 ($20 for students and seniors), as well as group discounts and season tickets, but Hole in the Wall clearly states on its website that “theater should be accessible to all, regardless of ability to pay.”
“Barbecue” has a 10-strong cast, which is big even for community theater these days.
“It can be harder to get larger casts together post-COVID,” Langston says. Again, Hole in the Wall’s unique structure, character and reputation were instrumental in bringing together a large, talented cast and crew.
“The cast comes from all over Connecticut,” says Langston. “There are three people I’ve worked with before and seven I haven’t worked with. The crew is as diverse as the cast.”
After Barbecue, Hole in the Wall has two other shows this season: Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost from October 7-22 and David Auburn’s mathematically complex family drama Proof from December 2-17.
The Shakespearean comedy balances darker, more whimsical choices from this season, not just “Barbecue” and “Proof,” but also previous offerings like Douglas Turner Ward’s “Days of Absence,” a 1960s African-American social satire that Langston says brought in much wider audiences than the theater often sees; Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, a fantasy about teenage suicide; and Sam Shepard’s rarely seen modern tragedy Heartless.
Hole in the Wall’s 2023 season is currently in the planning stages.
“If you think this year was dark, next season is even darker,” Langston says, laughing. “We’re now looking for comedies to drop by.”
Robert O’Hara’s ‘Barbecue’ directed by Teresa Langston runs from August 26th to September 10th at the Hole in the Wall Theatre, 116 Main Street, New Britain. Performances are at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Suggested donation is $25, $20 for students and seniors. Hole in the Wall Theater celebrates its 50th anniversary on September 24 at 7pm. Hole in the Wall began in 1972 in the back of a bookshop on Oak Street, New Britain, and has moved several times over the years before finding its current home. hitw.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected].