Halle Berry and Sidney Poitier

First-timer Christine Whitley's "The Goatwoman of Corvis County" never quite finds its voice in this world premiere, which also inaugurates Shakespeare & Company's second stage, the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater.

First-timer Christine Whitley’s “The Goatwoman of Corvis County” never quite finds its voice in this world premiere, which also inaugurates Shakespeare & Company’s second stage, the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater. While the four-hander shows some early promise, offering a sprinkle of laughs throughout, that pesky thing called plot never does quite materialize, causing the capable crew of actors to run out of steam in a second act that fails to deliver the goods.

Susan Zeeman Rogers’ set design (mostly a kitchen and eating space, with a few cleverly placed alternative playing areas) works well with Matthew Miller’s lighting and Govanne Lohbauer’s costumes in this intimate space. And helmer Robert Walsh moves the play along briskly enough, despite a few noticeable blocking gaffes: a seated actor’s back is turned to the audience for almost an entire scene, and players have a tendency to get up from the table to utter one line to show how upset they are before sitting down again.

Whatever plot there is revolves around Charlotte, played so humorously by Keira Naughton she practically gives the play a free pass through much of the first act.

Charlotte’s inexplicable power to heal goats — a conceit of the play barely referred to let alone exploited — has given her some minor local celebrity. Now on her fifth husband, building contractor Randy (more than capably played by Thomas Kee), she lives somewhere outside Nashville. Also in tow is Charlotte’s teenage son from a previous marriage, David (David Rosenblatt), whose idea of fighting off boredom is to put dead kittens in the microwave. Charlotte blames this and his headaches on his “bulging IQ.”

When Charlotte is accused of embezzling funds from the local animal charity to finance her shopaholic tendencies, young lawyer John (Daniel Berger-Jones) enters the picture. Here, the opportunity for the plot to actually thicken is mostly squandered — not to mention that the ties to Babe and her lawyer in “Crimes of the Heart” are more than just an echo; unconsciously or not, the ensuing flirtation feels almost lifted from the earlier Beth Henley work.

Still, it would be easy to forgive and forget, if only the play were headed somewhere other than toward David’s escalating beatings at the hands of his stepfather. One huge merit, however, is that Whitley’s characters are rarely dull and more than occasionally say amusing things. But in the end, the play feels like a hybrid of an overlong SNL sketch and an old Jerry Springer show. There’s never quite enough at stake.

As Randy says late in the play, this is a small mess, not a big one. And, unfortunately, like Charlotte’s confusing receipts for her “expenses,” it just doesn’t add up to very much.

The Goatwoman of Corvis County

Elayne P. Bernstein Theater, Lenox, Mass.; 168 seats; $48 top

Production

A Shakespeare & Company presentation of a play in two acts by Christine Whitley. Directed by Robert Walsh.

Creative

Sets, Susan Zeeman Rogers; costumes, Govane Lohbauer; lighting, Matthew Miller; original music and sound, Bill Barclay; production stage manager, April Carmack. Opened, reviewed Aug. 8, 2008. Runs through Aug. 31. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Charlotte - Keira Naughton Randy - Thomas Kee David - David Rosenblatt John - Daniel Berger-Jones
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