Hartford Stage announces ’optimistic’ 2021-22 season — but no ‘A Christmas Carol’

·5 min read

Hartford Stage will return to live performance in October after being shuttered for nearly a year and a half, with an “optimistic” season of classics (“Ah, Wilderness!,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Lost in Yonkers”), the new play-with-percussion “Dishwasher Dreams” and the issue-laden comedy “Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous.”

But for some, the list may be most notable for what’s not on it. “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” a seasonal staple at Hartford Stage for over 20 years, is taking yuletide off this year due to safety and budgetary concerns. Artistic Director Melia Bensussen and Managing Director Cynthia Rider say they hope to have the beloved production back for future seasons.

For this year, Hartford Stage is producing a different, more manageable Christmas show: “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” a popular adaptation of the classic Jimmy Stewart film, adapted by Connecticut playwright Joe Landry.

One reason for the change is continuing COVID concerns: “A Christmas Carol,” Bensussen says, “is our largest show. It has a large cast. It has a large cast of children, which means a lot of parents involved backstage. This was a decision based on public health. Also, we don’t know yet how quickly audiences will return.”

Another reason: budgetary constraints after a year of being closed. Rider acknowledges that “we are moving forward with a slightly different fiscal reality. Audiences will notice a difference. Some of the shows will be smaller. The staff will be smaller.”

Bensussen says “It’s a Wonderful Life” fits in beautifully with the rest of the 2021-22 programming. “This season is an optimistic one,” Bensussen says. “Not all laugh-out-loud comedies, but a lot of wit, a lot of resiliency and optimism. It’s filled with hope and joy and a generosity of spirit.”

The artistic director is also proud of the balance of classics, new plays and cultural diversity in the season.

The season, in chronological order:

  • Oct. 14 through Nov. 7: “Ah, Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill. The four-time Pulitzer winner and legendary alcoholic curmudgeon based this, his only comedy, on his childhood days in New London in the early 20th century. Bensussen, The play, which will feature live music and an onstage piano, was postponed from the end the 2019-20 season. “We made a very clear decision that we wanted to start this season with a big, joyous, celebratory show.”

  • Nov. 26 through Dec. 26: “It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” adapted by Joe Landry, co-directed by Bensussen and Rachel Alderman. The story of hapless George Bailey is told as if the audience were present for a performance of a Golden Age radio drama, a fun and busy setting with a few actors voicing dozens of characters while a sound effects artist struggles to keep up. “It speaks to us, as we are returning from COVID,” Bensussen says. — the heart and soul of George Bailey reassessing his time in a community. We are adapting this play to our moment. It’s not updated, it’s still a perfect 1940s story, but it will have real nods to Hartford Stage history and Hartford history.”

  • Jan. 13 through Feb. 6: “Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous” by Pearl Cleage, was also part of a previously announced/postponed season. The comedy, which revolves around a controversial production of an August Wilson play, was originally announced as part of the 2020-21 season. It is directed by

  • Feb. 24 through March 20: “Dishwasher Dreams” by Alaudin Ullah, directed by Chay Yew. Ullah based this one-man show on his own experiences establishing himself as a stand-up comedian on the West Coast while dealing with his immigrant parents who live in New York City. The playwright performs “Dishwasher Dreams” himself, accompanied by a tabla (Indian hand drum) player. The involvement of internationally renowned director Chay Yew makes “Dishwasher Dreams” even more special; Bensussen says he has been actively involved in the development of the piece.

  • April 7 through May 1: Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon, co-directed by Marsha Mason and Rachel Alderman. This quasi-autobiographical comedy/drama, by one of the most popular and prolific playwrights of the 20th century, is set in 1940s New York, covering three generations of a Jewish-American family who live in the same building as the granny’s candy store. Marsha Mason, who was married to Simon from 1973-83 and was the apparent inspiration for the characters she played in his “Goodbye Girl” and “Chapter Two,” takes on this formidable character and also co-directs this production with Rachel Alderman.

One show is yet to be announced. Hartford Stage also will continue doing online programming, not just the “Scene & Heard” discussion series but readings of new plays. The theater announced its first virtual “American Voices” series this month.

“We’ve done a lot of listening this year,” Bensussen says, “strengthening the dialogue between the theater and the community. This season has a variety of voices, with a desire to capture a range of aesthetics and cultures.”

With HVAC improvements and new hand sanitizer stations, Hartford Stage will hold a live open house for the general public in the theater lobby in September, when the “Ah, Wilderness!” cast arrives to start rehearsals. “I am so hungry for conversations in the lobby again,” Rider says.

Christopher Arnott can be reached at carnott@courant.com.