As a warm Saturday wanes in Barnard, the air is moist and redolent of late summer. Knots of locals, and at least one visitor from Burlington, cluster around a makeshift box office, chatting amiably. We all await entrance to a broad lawn that’s festively covered by a yellow and blue tent. Underneath it, rows of picnic and folding tables and motley chairs are set up, ready for diners.
It’s to be a “stone soup” supper, courtesy of the young agrarians at Barnard’s Fable Farm. That is, a large cauldron filled with black beans, vegetables and fragrant broth made from not rocks but bones. After dinner, a play will be performed — Sea Marks by Gardner McKay — also courtesy of the multitalented members of Fable Farm, a 5-year-old operation cofounded by brothers Christopher and Jon Piana. At the other end of the tent, more chairs are lined up facing a simple stage; it’s a platform, really, with a spartan set. Overhead hang six lights in white paper globes.
Beyond the stage, and adjacent concession stand offering sweet treats, lies a large, fecund garden, which attendees, once admitted, are welcome to roam before dinner. That rather charming, round log structure with curtained windows? It’s a brand-new outhouse. The mosaic work inside is fresh; please sit carefully, we’re instructed.
Called to eat at last, we form a line that snakes leisurely toward the cauldron — yes, the sort you’d see amid a huddle of witches in Macbeth. We each take a steaming bowl of soup and flatware wrapped in a brown paper napkin, and then find a seat at a table.
Most of the diners seem to know each other, but strangers are quickly made welcome here. And invited to take a glass of home-brewed hard cider. The visitor from Burlington should have anticipated this would be a BYO affair. In addition to the soup, each table is given a basket of chewy, wood-fired bread credited to Manchester’s Earth Sky Time Farm, platters of fat sliced tomatoes “grown in Barnard’s verdant hills,” and pesto.
As the dinner hour draws to a close, Fable Farm’s Jonah Hankin-Rappaport emerges to tell an embellished version of the classic stone-soup story — one involving three weary travelers, an impoverished, tightfisted town, and a pot of rocks and water that, little by little, is filled with ingredients by previously ungenerous citizens. The moral, of course, is that when everyone works together, a greater good is achieved.
It’s an old story, this Grimm’s fairy tale, but Hankin-Rappaport’s lively delivery captivates the mostly adult listeners present. The story is resonant in this village, whose residents have rallied to save their 180-year-old general store. And the stone-soup lesson is an apt ethos for Fable Farm, which provides weekly shares to some 100 members. While the labor of agriculture may be unglamorous, there’s a bit of enchantment, too, about this group: Among these new but devoted farmers are actors, writers, and musicians. Their collective artistic talent far surpasses simply tilling the soil.
As we are about to find out. Suppers finished, the crowd settles into chairs and onto blanketed hay bales facing the stage. Lights come up, and the show begins.
Sea Marks is a two-character play in which a poetic Irish fisherman named Colm Primrose — though ardent of speech and emotion, still a virgin — spots a woman at a wedding and eventually musters the courage to write her. Timothea Stiles, who works for a publishing company in Liverpool, receives Colm’s letters first with bemusement and then with eagerness. Mind you, this is decades before email, Skype and Match.com. (Sea Marks premiered in 1971 and is ostensibly set in the preceding decade, but the primitive conditions on Colm’s remote Irish island are timelessly gothic. Let’s just say there is no whiff of the swinging ’60s here.)
The slow courtship is conveyed as Colm (Andrew White) and Timothea (Emily Fleischer) read each other’s letters aloud. Their growing intimacy on paper finally entices Colm to Liverpool to get to know his ladylove more personally, including in bed; his nervous-virgin scene is one of the funniest in the play. Timothea, enamored of Colm’s evocative writing, persuades her employer to publish his letters as “sonnets from the sea” — a surprise that enrages rather than pleases their author. At first, anyway.
McKay’s sweet love story inevitably turns bittersweet, and, though its ending is predictable, the sweep of romance is the stuff of apparently endless appeal. The roles are rich and fraught with fragile passion, but the two young actors bring their characters to life with seeming ease — even on opening night. Tall and scruffily handsome, White in particular completely inhabits his rough-around-the-edges poet-fisherman, becoming “more Irish” as the play wears on. His dialogue bursts forth as if he had penned the lines himself. Fleischer gives a subtler performance, as befits Timothea’s more reserved personality (which is less developed by the playwright). Petite, pretty and dark-haired, Fleischer generally eschews the vocal cadences of McKay’s Welsh lass, but this choice is probably wise. It certainly is no problem for an audience of fellow Americans.
After all, even on a rustic set in Barnard, Vt., the language of love, loneliness and longing is universal.
As if on cue, an evening chill has crept in, draping itself over actors and audience alike. Filled with stone soup and the puissance of human drama, all disperse into the night under a bright half-moon.
"Sea Marks," written by Gardner McKay, directed by Marc Clopton, produced by Matt Bogosian. Fable Farm, Barnard. Saturdays, September 8 and 15, at 6 p.m.; Sundays, September 9 and 16, at 4 p.m. (Recommended for ages 12+.) $25 includes farm supper. fabletheatre.com