This year's New England summer theater season takes an urgently needed turn for the better with the Berkshire Theater Festival's utterly assured revival of Lillian Hellman's study of family dysfunction in "Toys in the Attic." Originally seen on Broadway in 1960 with a cast led by Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere, Irene Worth and Jason Robards Jr., the play may not be top-drawer Hellman, but it's vigorously theatrical and never less than melodramatically entertaining, with some terrific roles for a handful of actors capable of coping with them.

This year’s New England summer theater season takes an urgently needed turn for the better with the Berkshire Theater Festival’s utterly assured revival of Lillian Hellman’s study of family dysfunction in “Toys in the Attic.” Originally seen on Broadway in 1960 with a cast led by Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere, Irene Worth and Jason Robards Jr., the play may not be top-drawer Hellman, but it’s vigorously theatrical and never less than melodramatically entertaining, with some terrific roles for a handful of actors capable of coping with them. Under the potent direction of John Tillinger, the BTF’s cast makes the most of their opportunities with vivid splashes of personality and technique.

Hellman is at her most Tennessee Williams here. Set in a family home in New Orleans (apparently in the 1930s, in this production), the play presents a pair of old-maid sisters, Carrie and Anna Berniers, rapidly nearing middle age. Their entire existence is focused on their younger, 32-year-old ne’er-do-well brother Julian.

“You are our life,” they say. Until now, he has always returned home broke to be nursed and spoiled by his sisters, to whom his dependence is manna. But this time he returns with child bride Lily and $150,000. The sisters are deeply suspicious as to how he got it, and totally dismayed at losing his dependence. That the younger of the sisters, Carrie, has always harbored incestuous longings for her brother is icing on the cake.

Add the fact that Lily has a tenuous hold on sanity, that her mother has a black “chauffeur” lover, and that Julian will lose his money and be brutally beaten up, and you can see that Hellman cooked up quite a savory Southern jambalaya. On the plus side, the play is never dull and often wittily surprising. On the minus side, Hellman overexplicates her plot and themes to the point where they can become unnecessarily obvious. The play could have used one more round of editing and polishing.

Performed in a highly evocative set by Jeff Cowie that reveals both the Berniers sisters’ living room and vine-covered front porch, the play comes immediately to life, warts and all.

As the two sisters, complete with helmets of marcelled hair, Lizbeth Mackay and Roxanne Hart could scarcely be better. As the older, more realistic Anna, Mackay underplays with steely poignancy. As Carrie, on the surface a fluttering Southern belle, underneath even tougher than Anna, Hart dives headfirst into Southern treacle with complete conviction.

In the tricky, but rewarding, role of emotionally fragile Lily, Seana Kofoed is equally fine and true. Debra Mooney is wonderfully at ease with her character, Lily’s mother (which may be the play’s most subtle role). Under such expert circumstances, the fact that Mooney looks older than her lover (played with telling dignity by Michael Early), though they’re both supposed to be around 45, is virtually beside the point.

As Julian, Jeffrey Donovan may push too hard and loud for the intimate BTF Playhouse, but his bluster is entirely in character. By the play’s end, when virtually everyone’s life has been shattered, his beaten-and-bloodied boy-man has real pathos.

In less than ideal hands, “Toys” could lapse into a caricature of the Southern Gothic genre. That it never does is to the credit of everyone involved, including costume designer Carrie Robbins and composer Scott Killian.

Toys in the Attic

Berkshire Theater Festival Playhouse, Stockbridge, Mass.; 415 seats; $40 top

Production

A Berkshire Theater Festival presentation of a play in two acts by Lillian Hellman. Directed by John Tillinger.

Creative

Set, Jeff Cowie; costumes, Carrie Robbins; lighting, Howell Binkley; music and sound, Scott Killian; stage manager, Chris DeCamillis. Berkshire Theater Festival producing director, Kate Maguire. Opened, reviewed July 12, 2000. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast

Carrie Berniers - Roxanne Hart Anna Berniers - Lizbeth Mackay Gus - Richard T. Johnson Albertine Prine - Debra Mooney Henry Simpson - Michael Early Julian Berniers - Jeffrey Donovan Lily Berniers - Seana Kofoed Taxi Driver - Kevin Roberts
With: Spencer S. Christie, Sean Christopher Lewis, Jonathan Oliver Sessler.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more