“Hackmatack” is an Algonquin name for the larch, which drops its needles in winter and re-grows them in the spring.

Thus, it’s a fitting name for a popular perennial theater, located off Route 9 in Berwick, that lies dormant in winter and springs back to life each summer. Hackmatack Playhouse will celebrate its 40th performance season this year.

The 200-acre property has been in the Guptill family since the 1600s, its large, red barn-turned-theater formerly housing cattle and hay. But for the past four decades, the only thing lowing in the old barn has been seasonal audiences who guffaw and moan over the musicals, comedies and dramas unfolding on stage in the 218-seat venue.

In 1971 the late S. Carleton Guptill sold the cows, cleared the barn and installed a stage, can lights and seating to realize his dream of offering live community theater. Six other farm buildings on the property were converted to wardrobe and prop storage.

Then, as now, it’s a family affair, with Carleton’s eldest son, Michael Guptill, serving as executive director in charge of selecting the lineup and electing directors and designers. His son Chris Guptill is a set designer. And Michael’s wife Cyndy is famous for her intermission offerings of freshly baked seasonal fruit pies, served by the slice along with offerings of popcorn.

“She bakes six pies per show … from scratch,” Michael Guptill said.

He said stage performance ran in the Guptill blood, beginning with his grandfather Lewis Guptill.

“My parents were both lovers of theater,” Guptill said. “We were raised on Broadway show tunes, and my siblings and I always had some kind of part in community theater. My mother had a fine singing voice and my father … well … he always sang at the top of his lungs. He used to tell me, ‘If you can’t sing good, then sing loud.’ “

Guptill said Hackmatack will kick off its anniversary just as it did in its inaugural year, with “Ten Nights in a Barroom,” a temperance melodrama on the evils of alcohol, set to popular music of the late 1800s.

“The show featured lots of over-the-top drama with audience members cheering for the hero and booing at the villain,” he said.

Set to run June 29 through July 2, the show will feature many of the same aesthetics employed when it premiered.

Music will be played on the barn’s old, upright piano. Air conditioning will be supplied via double screen doors and a field breeze. And the villainy will be provided by Blaine Pickett, a North Berwick native son who reprises the role of bad guy Harvey Green.

“I was 26 when I first played this role,” said Pickett, now 65, of Nashville, Tenn. “Carleton approached me and said, ‘Boy, have I got a role for you!’“

Pickett enthusiastically got into character, donning a top hat, tails and wide mustache.

The audiences ate it up, packing the barn for the show’s two-week run — though they repeatedly were asked to curb their enthusiasm and refrain from throwing objects at Pickett during his performance.

“They used to pelt me with crabapples they picked from a tree next to the barn,” he said.

Pickett went on to perform in 80 shows at Hackmatack. He credits Carleton Guptill with encouraging him to take chances on stage and broaden his acting range.

“(Carleton) always had faith in me and asked me to do things I never would have tried on my own,” Pickett said.

“He once cast me as Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s sidekick in ‘The Man of LaMancha.’ I was this 6-foot 1-inch thin man attempting to play a short, fat Spaniard. But the audiences bought the performance, and it was well-received.

“This has all come full circle for me,” Pickett said. “I’m getting up there in age. So, this is likely my swan song at Hackmatack. I’m very grateful for the opportunity. And I’m going to give them my best effort.”

Attendees are invited to sing along but to please leave the apples on the tree outside.

 

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: [email protected]