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Siena D'Addario, Stephen Michael Spencer, Mark Martin, and Luis Quintero in in HVSF's 2024 production of Medea: Re-Versed- Photo by Gabe Palacio

15 Summer Theaters for That Nearby, Out-of-Town Experience

on The NY Times

Easygoing days of drama and comedy are just a few hours away (or even closer) in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Summer used to be when playgoing in the city came to a full stop. With no air-conditioning, most shows closed, at least until fall.

But now that urban theater is a year-round sport, Memorial Day is more like a comma than a period. Notable productions play straight through the hot months — some even opening in August, even on Broadway.

So what has happened to the regional festivals, straw-hat theaters and avant-garde outposts that once flourished as the city languished? Many are struggling. Yet others are surging.

Regardless, they’re worth visiting.

There’s something different about summer theater outside the city. Subways are rarely involved, though a train ride or overnight stay at a lovely inn might be. Dress is casual — by which I mean “more casual than usual” because I’ve seen people at Shakespeare in the Park in pajamas. And the fare is more varied, including not just the prestige and tourist-bait extremes of the spectrum but also the hokey, offbeat and silly stuff in between.

Another plus: what you spend on that inn, you’ll save on the tickets.

So here’s a selection of theater that will help you get out of the city — or at least make you feel like you did.

The Big Magnets

Formerly the jewel of the summer theater circuit, famous for classics and knotty new works, the Williamstown Theater Festival, in Williamstown, Mass., is regrouping after its production model, dependent on unpaid labor, collapsed. This season includes just one fully staged production: David Ives’s detective drama, “Pamela Palmer” (starting July 23). But much more is going on, including a multigenre, multistage event called “WTF Is Next” (Aug. 1-4). Think of it not as crisis management but as a tasting platter of ideas for the future.

A different formula — mixing popular musicals with thoughtful contemporary work — has helped Barrington Stage Company, just 20 miles down the road in Pittsfield, Mass., thrive where others have struggled. This season is no different, including the musicals “La Cage Aux Folles” (through Saturday) and “Next to Normal” (starting Aug. 13) but also the raucous comedy “Boeing Boeing” (starting July 17).

With programming that’s all over map — plays, musicals, concerts, standup — it makes sense that the Berkshire Theater Group is all over the map as well, with two theaters in Stockbridge, Mass., and one in nearby Pittsfield. For traditional theatergoers, this season’s best prospects include a pair of rare revivals, apt for a presidential election year: “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” directed by the playwright David Auburn (through July 14) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Pipe Dream” (starting July 26).

Goodspeed Musicals has a split personality. At its main stage along the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam, Conn. — a 19th-century jewel called the Opera House — it produces revivals of much-loved war horses. At its modern Terris Theater, 10 minutes away in Chester, it fosters original works. “South Pacific,” directed by Chay Yew, looks to be the highlight in East Haddam (through Aug. 11); at the Terris, it might well be “Ask for the Moon,” a farcical new ocean-liner comedy from the director Darko Tresnjak (starting July 19).

Shakespeare, Approximately

Though Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Mass., produces all kinds of plays in its five performance spaces, why not experience its namesake author? This summer includes “Shake It Up,” a cabaret setting the poet’s verse to rock music (through Sunday), and a vaudeville-themed version of “The Comedy of Errors” (starting July 13). The vaudeville is in the company’s 540-seat amphitheater, so bring bug spray.

The same goes for performances under the big top at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, in Garrison, N.Y. In a season of reimaginings — a beautiful new hilltop tent theater is scheduled to open in 2026 — the festival this season (through Sept. 2) offers a “re-versed” “Medea,” an adaptation of Agatha Christie and “By the Queen,” Whitney White’s take on the Henriad tetralogy, as seen by the fascinatingly complex Queen Margaret.

Hats Not Required

The old straw-hat circuit — named for the informal headgear men wore in summer — brought stars to the sticks. That’s not so common these hatless days, but one of the oldest straw-hat theaters, Ogunquit Playhouse, in Ogunquit, Maine, will present some stars worth flipping a lid for: Kathleen Turner and Julia Murney in “A Little Night Music” (starting July 18).

The Cape Playhouse, in Dennis, Mass., has been a destination for theatergoers en route to Provincetown since 1927. If its flags, gingerbread and parklike setting make it seem like a set for “The Music Man,” that’s good advertising; it specializes in upbeat stagings of hit Broadway musicals, this summer including “Beautiful” (July 10-Aug. 3) and “Waitress” (Aug. 7-24).

With its weathered barn and woodsy Catskill setting, the Forestburgh Playhouse in Forestburgh, N.Y., feels like a throwback to the unpretentious days of let’s-put-on-a-show summer theater — and indeed, it’s the oldest continuously running professional playhouse in New York. But the rich combo of thoughtful dramas and lightweight musicals — including “The Prom” (July 16-28) and “Rock of Ages” (Aug. 13-25) — means that the fare, if familiar, isn’t musty.

Three musicals — “The Prom,” “Beautiful,” “Rock of Ages” — seem to dominate this straw-hat season. You could compare productions invidiously by adding the Sharon Playhouse, in Sharon, Conn., to your tour. It is staging two of them: “Rock of Ages” (through July 7) and an especially promising “Prom,” starring Kate Baldwin as a diva down on her luck (starting July 26). That musical is just six years old but already as classic as the playhouse’s big red barns.

Out There

Summer festivals that focus on nurturing new talent and new ideas feel especially at home on campuses. Nestled among the dorms of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Powerhouse Theater produces short runs of developmental work. Two that look to be highlights of the season are about queer life: the lesbian musical thriller “Absolute Zero” (July 12-14) and Drew Droege’s “Messy White Gays” (July 19-21).

Just five miles away, where Poughkeepsie meets the Hudson — make reservations for lunch at the Culinary Institute of America nearby — is New York Stage and Film, on the Marist College campus. This incubator’s runs are even shorter, usually just one performance each, but that’s part of the fun; some of what you catch on the fly will wind up Off Broadway in years to come. Among the options this season (July 16-Aug. 4) are Amber Ruffin’s musical “Bigfoot,” Kate Douglas’s “Tulipa” and Stacy Osei-Kuffour’s “Basement, IL.”

Farther upstate, in Annandale-on-Hudson, Bard Summerscape’s annual festival of the arts, on the Bard College campus, typically programs at least one genre-bending theatrical novelty among its dance and classical music explorations. Last year, it was “Illinoise,” which soon made its way to Broadway; this year it’s Elevator Repair Service’s moving take on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (through July 14).

Nothing from PS21, the Center for Contemporary Performance in Chatham, N.Y., is likely to end up on Broadway. The company’s sweet spot is the international avant-garde, this summer including a “Hamlet” from Peru (July 19 and July 20). Amid the beauty of its 100-acre hilltop setting, once an apple orchard, PS21 makes its challenging work feel as welcoming as a new kind of nursery.

It’s not so much regional as hyperlocal, but Little Island, on a pier off West 13th Street in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, is a refuge anyway, surrounded by big sky and the Hudson. Typifying its adventurous mix of genres and styles this summer is Henry Hoke’s “Open Throat” (July 10-14), in which dance, music, puppets and human actors (including Chris Perfetti) tell the story of a queer mountain lion in Hollywood. Sometimes the way to get farthest from the city is by heading right to its heart.

Jesse Green is the chief theater critic for The Times. He writes reviews of Broadway, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, regional and sometimes international productions. More about Jesse Green