The clear indication is that the artist must show an assertiveness in fields that are not his own. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, so is the economic crisis too important to be left to the economists.

– John Kenneth Galbraith

Purchasing a season subscription to one (or more) of New Jersey’s regional theaters should be an essential part of your entertainment planning even if you are frustrated by America’s extended occupation of Iraq, angered by rising gas prices, irritated by the incompetence of our homeland security and safety agencies, depressed by the apathy of our leadership to address pressing domestic issues, and just plain infuriated by the increasing power and radicalism of the far right. Now more than ever, it is time to look to the theater, as people have done for hundreds of years, not only for escape from a world gone amok, but also for a deeper understanding of the causes of our ills.

Theater has always played an important role in shaping society and influencing people in ways that political manipulation cannot. The theater can also serve to initiate a healing process by allowing us to empathize with many sides of an issue as explored by various artists with differing visions. This is the gift that our regional theaters bring to us as they seek to entertain and challenge but not offend, to encourage thought and conversation but not alienate. Can you imagine the dilemma a theater has in preparing a season that will seem exciting, important, relevant, imaginative, and entertaining enough to warrant your attention in the current and depressing political,economic, and social climate?

McCarter Theater’s producing director Mara Isaacs says that while McCarter "clearly does not shy away from political work, the work we do is essentially artist-driven." But she does concede that while "there is something that is happening culturally that is feeding on the divisive nature in our culture, the theater allows for a more complex discussion of what is happening in the world."

During a recent phone interview with Isaacs, she speaks enthusiastically about the patently subversive playwright Christopher Durang, famous for his naughtily irreverent skewering of contemporary American culture ("Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You"). The ever incorrigible Durang continues to tackle a messed up world that’s scary. In "Miss Witherspoon," his latest comedy playing through October 16 in the Berlind Theater, Durang uses the device of reincarnation and applies it to a dismayed dead woman who does not want to return. The production is directed by McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann.

That August Wilson, one of the towering forces in American dramatic literature, has been diagnosed with fatal liver cancer brings a sad dimension to the production of his stunning play, "Gem of the Ocean," the ninth in his 10-play cycle on the black experience in America. It is currently in rehearsal and previews begin Tuesday, October 11, at McCarter. The production features Phylicia Rashad playing the role that earned her a Tony nomination last spring. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who appeared in "Lackawanna Blues" at McCarter and won a Tony Award for his performance in Wilson’s "Seven Guitars," makes his directing debut.

Directing Eugene O’Neill’s dramatic powerhouse, "A Moon for the Misbegotten," opening at the Berlind on January 13, is award-winning Chicago-based Gary Griffin, who directed the lauded mini-version of "My Fair Lady" at McCarter. He is also preparing to direct the musical version of "The Color Purple" this season on Broadway.

What promises to be a magical event is an off-beat version of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," the first ever joint venture between McCarter and the Paper Mill Playhouse. Says Isaacs: "Paper Mill and McCarter have found the perfect collaboration with Shakespeare’s popular comedy. (Paper Mill CEO) Michael Gennaro and I both admired the work of the musical group GrooveLily when we heard them at a musical workshop. We invited them to compose the score as well as be part of the company on the stage." The show opens on March 21, 2006, at the Matthews Theater, under Tina Landau’s direction. "Midsummer" moves to the Paper Mill Playhouse on April 19.

The world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winner ("Crimes of the Heart") Mississippi-born Beth Henley’s "Ridiculous Fraud" takes place at McCarter on May 5, 2006. Famed for her "southern gothic" comic style, Henley has focused on the calamitous twists and turns of a New Orleans family.

But what is the responsibility of theater at a time when the country seems to be taking a potentially calamitous twist and turn toward authoritarian conservatism? As playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw said, "The nation’s morals are like teeth, the more decayed they are, the more it hurts to touch them." The theater,however, be it classical or contemporary, has never been afraid to touch the sore spots and often be the most resonant force in society to confront social, moral, and ethical issues.

New Jersey’s professional regional theater seems to be, after a little scrutiny, close to achieving the perfect balance of art and politics, activism and healing, protestations and pleasures. No one is likely to dispute that going to the theater should be a pleasure. But, at its best, it stirs the soul, invites activism, and speaks out bravely and dramatically in the face of those who would shut us up. Anyone who has ever spoken to George Street Playhouse artistic director David Saint knows that you can’t shut him up. About speaking out bravely, he says: "It’s my life. Theater artists can speak out with the least amount of censorship and express their true feelings without having PR doctors trying to spin it."

One of the most highly anticipated dramatic events of the season at George Street promises to be William Mastrosimone’s "The Afghan Women," a play that resonates with aspects of the playwright’s personal experience. Nevertheless, Saint expressed his concern for the personal turmoil and red tape that Mastrosimone, who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, is currently having trying to adopt an Afghan child. Mastrosimone’s despair with what is happening in the world is such that he told Saint while he was polishing and re-writing

that he thought he might kill off the heroine. Whether this happens or not, Mastrosimone’s play, about an American woman doctor who goes to Afghanistan, should prove as gripping and provocative as it was when it premiered two years ago at Trenton’s Passage Theater. As part of Mastrosimone’s agreement with any theater that produces this play, all royalties will go to the non-profit International Orphan Care.

Saint’s loyalty to playwright Arthur Laurents is demonstrated by the frequency with which his plays have appeared at George Street. Saint insists that it is also because he admires the prolific octogenarian for being "a fighter of social injustice in his life and in his work, namely "Home of the Brave," "The Way We Were," and "Attacks on the Heart," among them. Laurents’ most autobiographical play, "2 Lives," about an elderly gay couple coming to terms with their lives, opens the season on October 19.

Saint suspects that Glen Berger’s "Underneath the Lintel," a metaphysical mystery about a librarian who sets out to find the man who returned a book 113 years overdue, will spark, as did last season’s "Address Unknown," a strong response from the audience because of its sensitive social issues, especially during the post-performance talks. It opens on January 10, 2006.

"Inspecting Carol," about a struggling non-profit theater whose production of the Charles Dickens’ classic is beset with problems, proved a laugh riot when it was staged at George Street eight years ago. This is the show in which Saint will once again solicit the participation of famous New Jersey women, who get a chance to perform in the play in a small walk-on part as an evaluator of the National Endowment of the Arts. It will be welcomed back as the holiday attraction beginning November 29.

Saint has award-winning actress Allison Fraser to thank for bringing "Gunmetal Blues" to his attention. Billed as a film noir musical parody of the hard-boiled detective stories, the musical features a score that Saint describes as "sexy, bluesy, sultry, and smoky." Fraser will repeat the role for which she won Philadelphia’s Barrymore award. This New Jersey premiere begins its run on April 4, 2006.

Just as importantly, live theater has worked its spell for centuries in renewing our faith, hope, and optimism. These three ideals seem to stand out in the shows this season at the Paper Mill Playhouse, where Michael Gennaro is offering more recognizable titles than in the previous season. Though recognizable, none of the shows this season have been done in a long time. More importantly, Gennaro says, "we have picked fresh, young, visionary directors Carolyn Cantor to direct ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and Erica Schmidt to direct Bob Merrill’s charming ‘Carnival.’ They will bring the unexpected to these productions."

Gennaro says the combination of "great music and great story telling" is his primary goal in choosing shows for the theater. Great story telling is certainly at the heart of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (beginning January 18), which Gennaro says is "full of joy and hope despite the horror of the events surrounding it." Gennaro has also put his faith in the show that opens the season on October 19, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical "Cinderella." He promises this production, under the direction of Gabriel Barre, will return the classicism of the original score yet have a more contemporary book.

Before the season ends with "Hello Dolly" (with a diva yet to be announced), under the direction of artistic associate Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill will present its co-production (with McCarter) of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," beginning April 19.

We can’t and shouldn’t expect the theater, particularly our regional theater companies, to take on the work of journalists. The work of theater artists is to reflect on, not to inform about, the human experience. The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, has apparently found in the classical canon all she needs to make those political, social, and cultural points that are universal in their message.

After 400 years, Shakespeare can still be counted on to provide illumination and wisdom in the most stressful of times. All hail the arrival of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s production of "Julius Caesar," beginning on Tuesday, October 11. In this historic tragedy, we see how transitory the illusion of power is, even in an empire as great and far-reaching as was Rome.

Do not suppose that Shakespeare doesn’t give us something to think about in America today. Monte says: "’Julius Caesar’ is one of the four or five shows we have specifically chosen over the past few years that address the subject of leadership, what makes a strong ethical government, and what makes a terrible leader," citing as more examples "Macbeth," "King John," and "Richard II."

In considering the three plays that will end this season, Monte says: "We are lucky, because no plays have more resonance on issues confronting us today than does classic theater. Shakespeare was obsessed with ethical leadership and corrupt government. All these plays dissect these things." Monte says that the problem she faces is looking at the entire world canon and trying to decide which of the plays really speak to us now. Monte, who likes to use a slogan as an umbrella for the plays she picks, chose "Revelations/Revolutions" to identify a season that has created more controversy than any in the past.

If Monte can survive the conservative backlash that greeted superb productions earlier this season of the sexually provocative "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and the science vs. religion conflict in "The Life of Galileo," then she can survive anything. "The world is troubled and the only thing that can spur change is revelations and a revolt against what was," says Monte, who reminds me that even Oscar Wilde’s insanely witty comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest" (through October 2) is full of revelations and a revolt against social conventions. And do we not rejoice in Wilde’s comedies even as he was reviled by an intolerant society?

For the holiday season, Monte has made it a practice to present "celebratory shows that transcend specific religious roots." "As You Like It" (beginning November 29) is this year’s choice. It is about how personal revelations lead its characters away from a corrupt government into better society, and, as she concludes, "takes place in a beautiful wintry forest."

Monte is most encouraged, she says, "by the young people whose minds are opened and enlightened by the lessons in these great plays." An audience is more likely to be open and receptive to the complexities of human existence when it is presented as entertainment in an environment that has traditionally embraced diversity and tolerance. And as angry as we might be at the way things are, Monte reminds me, "going to the theater is a healing experience." Theater artists have always recognized the mobilizing power of a vision and the healing force of an illusion. If that is what it takes to effect change then head me toward the nearest theater. Let’s hope that we see you there.

For the complete calendar of arts events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html

Academy Theater

146 Route 130, Bordentown, 609-291-9000, www.theacademytheatre.com.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show . Opening night of the musical with Brad, Janet, and Dr. Frank N Furter. Through November 5. $25. Friday, October 7.

Little Shop of Horrors . Opening night for the musical about Mushnik’s Flower Shop, Audrey, Seymour, and Orin. Through December 17. $25. Friday, December 2.

Actors’ NET

635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, 215-295-3694,www.actorsnetbucks.org.

High Society . Cole Porter musical comedy about socialite Tracy Lord’s romantic confusion. Jackie Laurence and C. Jameson Bradley, both of Quakertown, reprise the roles they played in Philip Barry’s "The Philadelphia Story" on which the musical is based. It was also Actors’ Net’s first production in 1996. Through October 9. $15. Friday, September 23.

The Petrified Forest . American gangster drama. Through November 13. $15. Friday, October 28.

Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? . Musical comedy. Through December 18. $20. Thursday, December 1.

Christmas Cavalcade . Annual holiday celebration. Through December 24. $15. Thursday, December 22.

Bridge Players Theater Company

Broad Street Methodist Church, 36 East Broad Street, Burlington, 856-303-7620, www.bridgeplayerstheatre.com.

The Laramie Project . Drama opens their 30th anniversary season. For mature audiences. Dinner packages with the nearby Cafe Gallery available. Through Saturday, October 22. $15. Friday, October 7.

Bristol Riverside Theater

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org. I Married Wyatt Earp . Preview of a world premiere musical directed by Keith Baker. $34 to $42. Tuesday, September 27.

Moon Over Buffalo . Opening night. $42. Thursday, November 17.

Peddie

Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550, www.peddie.org/capps.

Dramatists Workshop Series . Staged reading of "The Annals of Eelin-OK" by Jeffrey Ford, and "South Beach" by Peter Gary Brav. Post performance discussion. Register. Free. Wednesday, September 28.

Spencers Theater of Illusion . Kevin and Cindy Spencer present original theatrical elements with cutting-edge illusions, audience interaction, dramatic lighting, special effects, music, movement, and stage magic. $20. Sunday, November 13.

Count Basie Theater

99 Monmouth Street, Red Bank, 732-842-9000, www.countbasietheatre.org.

Bill Cosby . Saturday, October 8.

My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy. Steve Solomon presents a 90-minute one-man show about his wacky family. $25 and 32.50. Sunday, October 16.

The Capitol Steps. $25 to $35. Friday, October 21.

Crossroads Theater

7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100, www.crossroadsnb.com.

Cookin’ at the Cookery . The music and times of blues legend Alberta Hunter written and directed by Marion J. Caffey. Her musical career included performing in the 1928 original "Showboat" with Paul Robeson and singing on the same stages as Josephine Baker. Through December 11. Friday, December 2.

George Street Playhouse

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsponline.org.

2 Lives . Drama written by Arthur Laurents and directed by David Saint. Starring Tom Aldredge, star of Broadway’s "Twelve Angry Men." Through November 13. $28 to $56. Tuesday, October 18.

Inspecting Carol . Comedy by Daniel Sullivan and directed by David Saint. Through December 31. $28 to $56. Tuesday, November 29.

Kelsey Theater, Mercer County Community College

1200 Old Trenton Road, 609-584-9444, www.kelseytheatre.net.

Cheaper by the Dozen . Comedy about an efficiency expert applying his theories to raise his large family. Through October 9. $12. Friday, September 30.

They’re Playing Our Song . Musical love story by Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch, and Carole Bayer Sager. Through October 23. $16. Friday, October 14.

Harvey . Comedy features a six-foot tall invisible white rabbit. Through November 6. $12. Friday, October 28.

Inspecting Carol . Drama of a theater company putting on its annual production of "A Christmas Carol." Through November 20. $12. Friday, November 11.

Mason Gross School of the Arts

Philip J. Levin Theater, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu

Mud . Drama by Maria Irene Fornes. Through October 9. $20. Friday, September 30.

New Theater, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.

As You Like It . Shakespeare classic. Through November 19. $20. Friday, November 4.

Philip J. Levin Theater, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.

Audrey . Drama by Sarah Kate O’Haver. Through December 10. $20. Friday, December 2.

McCarter Theater

91 University Place, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.

Gem of the Ocean . First night of August Wilson’s ninth play about African-American experiences in the 20th century takes place in 1904 Pittsburgh. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Starring Phylicia Rashad and John Amos. Through October 30. $30 to $40. Tuesday, October 11.

A Christmas Carol . First night of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale adapted by David Thompson and directed by Michael Unger. Scenery by Ming Cho Lee and costumes by Jess Goldstein. Through December 24. $31 to $49. Sunday, December 4.

New Jersey Performing Arts Center

Prudential Hall, Newark, 888-466-5722.

Lily Tomlin . The Tony Award-winning comedienne. Saturday, October 8.

Salzburg Marionette Theater . "A Midsummer Night’s Dream." Also Saturday, November 5. Friday, November 4.

Salzburg Marionette Theater . "Hansel and Gretel." Saturday, November 5.

New Jersey Repertory Company

Lumia Theater, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166, www.njrep.org.

Tilt Angel . A blues-infused fairy tale about a most unusual family by Dan Dietz. Opening night with reception is Saturday, October 16, 8 p.m. $30. Friday, October 14.

Off-Broadstreet Theater

5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766.

The It Girl . Musical is a tribute to silent movies and Clara Bow based on the Paramount picture "It" about a sassy department store salesclerk who wins an advertising contest. Through Saturday, November 26. $23.75 to $25.25. Friday, October 14.

Squabbles . Comedy about a writer of advertising jingles married to a lawyer, her father, and his mother — all under the same roof. Through Saturday, January 15. $23.75 to $25.25. Friday, December 9.

Paper Mill Playhouse

Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.

Cinderella . The timeless fairy tale adapted by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1957 brought to the stage. Directed by Gabriel Barre. Through December 4. $31 to $68. Wednesday, October 19.

Passage Theater

Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766.

Move It and It’s Yours . First performance of a musical comedy about a man, his mid-life crisis, and his piano. When Charlie is told that it will cost $1,000 to move his piano, he posts flyers "Move it and it’s yours!" around the neighborhood. Through November 20. $25. Thursday, October 27.

Patriots Theater at the War Memorial

Memorial Drive, Trenton, 609-984-8400, www.thewarmemorial.com. Robert Klein. $18 to $35. Friday, October 28.

Peddie School

William Mount-Burke Theater, Hightstown, 609-490-7550.

Up the Down Staircase . Fall underclassmen play about a young teacher and her students adapted by Christopher Sergel and Bel Kaufman. Also, Friday, October 21. $5. Thursday, October 20.

Romeo and Juliet . These Mortalsby Players present William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. Through November 5. $8. Wednesday, November 2.

Raritan Valley Community College

Route 28, North Branch, 908-725-3420, www.rvcckids.org. Mame . Musical. $35 and $40. Friday, September 30. Capitol Steps . Songs and scenes of timely and irreverent spoof of the headlines. $27 and $32. Saturday, October 15.

Raritan Valley Community College

A Christmas Carol . Nebraska Theater Caravan presents the holiday favorite. $35 and $40. Saturday, December 3.

Ritz Theater

915 White Horse Pike, Oaklyn, 856-858-5230.

Jekyll & Hyde . Award winning musical that delves into the epic battle between good and evil. Through November 19. $17 to $22. Thursday, October 20.

Scrooge, the Musical . First night. Through December 18. Thursday, December 1.

Shakespeare ’70

Don Evans Black Box Theater, College of New Jersey, Ewing, 609-882-5979, www.shakespeare70.org.

A Delicate Balance . Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning portrayal of a family walking a tight rope between relationships. Stars real-life husband and wife, George Hartpence and Carol Thompson of New Hope. Through October 1. $12. Thursday, September 22.

Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey

F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.shakespearenj.org.

Julius Caesar . First performance of William Shakespeare’s drama directed by Brian B. Crowe. Through November 13. Tuesday, October 11.

As You Like It . First performance of William Shakespeare’s play directed by Bonnie J. Monte. Through December 31. Tuesday, November 29.

State Theater

15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469, www.StateTheatreNJ.org.

42nd Street . Showstopper tunes include Shuffle Off to Buffalo and Lullaby of Broadway. Also, October 2. $30 to $55. Saturday, October 1.

Queensryche . Concerts East presents an updated version of "Operation: Mindcrime," a psychological drama about a fortune hunter who joins an underground network of political assassins. Thursday, October 6.

Sinbad . Comedian known for his family-friendly brand of comedy. His success on Star Search led to a co-starring role on television show, the "New Redd Foxx Show," and then to sitcom, "A Different World." He is also the author of "Sinbad’s Guide to Life (Because I know Everything) and has been seen on the big screen. $25 to $50. Friday, October 7.

Whoopi Goldberg . One woman show. $35 to $85. Saturday, October 22.

An Evening with Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood . Interactive show with stars of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" $25 to $50. Friday, November 11.

Hamlet . Aquila Theater Company presents Shakespeare’s tale of familial discord, ambition, love, and revenge. $15 to $20. Tuesday, November 15.

Theatre Intime

Frist Theater, Princeton University, 609-258-5155, www.theatreintime.org.

Buried Child . Through Saturday, October 1. Thursday, September 22.

The Secret Garden . Through Saturday, November 19. Thursday, November 17.

Two Rivers Theater Company

21 Bridge Street, Red Bank, 732-345-1400, www.trtc.org. Umbrellas of Cherbourg . Drama about two star-crossed young lovers by Jacques Demy, with music by Michael Legrand, and English language adaptation by Sheldon Harnick. Through October 9. $25 to $45. Thursday, September 22.

Westminster Choir College

The Playhouse, Princeton, 609-921-2663, westminster.rider.edu.

Is There Life After High School? . Comedy presented by Westminster Music Theater. Through December 3. $15. Thursday, December 1.

The Wiz . Musical by Westminster Conservatory’s The Actors Company features soprano Rochelle Ellis. Through Sunday, December 18. $15. Saturday, December 17.

Westminster Conservatory Actors Company

Williamson Hall, 609-921-2663.

White Girls . Cabaret featuring Paula and Tessa White accompanied by Nathan Brewer. Through songs and stories, the twin sisters, who appear to have little in common show that everyone is pretty much the same. Also Saturday, September 24, 8 p.m. $15. Friday, September 23.

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