She has worked for 17 years at a small manufacturing firm in Manhattan, and the story begins on the day she is laid off. Her husband is transferred, and the family arrive, dazed, in a small Southern town that seems to have grown out of plastic and asphalt.
“People ended up in New Brunswick, North Carolina … after they were fired or got divorced or wanted to spend their lives somewhere warm,” Karen Bender writes her short story, “Free Lunch.”
Next week, her story will travel to the Berkshires in an evening of “Unforgettable Journeys” — Jane Kaczmarek will perform it live in Selected Shorts with Jane Curtin and Robert Sean Leonard at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Grat Barrington.
All three actors have often brought short stories to life on tour and on the national radio program on Public Radio International (PRI). At the Mahaiwe, Leonard will perform “Liliana” by Maile Meloy, in which a struggling family in Los Angeles gets a visit from a relative they thought was dead.
Curtin will return with “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” by Lorrie Moore: Faced by a daunting change at work, a young woman takes her mother on a trip to Ireland.
And Kaczmarek will present “Free Lunch” the day after she finishes her run of “And No More Shall We Part” with Alfred Molina at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
She first read “Free Lunch” in her book group in Pasadena, Calif., she said in a phone interview in her last week of WTF performances. The story follows a middle-class family trying about making ends meet, a familiar tension after 2008.
The narrator swelters in the exhaustion and confusion of losing structure and a sense of purpose — a sense that she was doing something of use.
She misses the feeling that she can walk into a department store with her kids and get them something small, a DVD, Kaczmarek said. It’s sobering.
“I was thinking, what would I do?” she said. “People get jobs in retail or stay home.”
The narrator’s family feel uprooted in a place that could be anywhere.
“We drove the wide, empty streets,” Bender writes: “We looked out the windows at the parking lots, we ate, slept, swept the floors, tried not to buy things, talked, ignored each other, waited.”
Reading the story at home, Kaczmarek thought of towns change she has seen change over the years — North Adams, or New Haven, Conn. — as an industry or a major employer leaves or a new initiative surfaces.
Selected Shorts itself has grown from an initiative that changed a neighborhood. Isaiah Sheffer — an Emmy-nominated writer and producer, an actor and director, became an entrepreneur when he turned a falling-down movie theatre in the Upper West Side into Symphony Space with two theaters and a broad range of music, theater and film. (This month’s calendar covers speed climbing, political satire and the Mexican Music Awards.)
Sheffer launched Selected Shorts in 1985, and it has grown into a weekly radio show broadcast over 150 stations to more than 300,000 listeners, with live readings across the country.
The Mahaiwe has hosted Selected Shorts on some seven evenings since 2008, said executive director Beryl Jolly, speaking in her office in Great Barrington. She feels a connection with Sheffer going back generations: her grandfather was an early supporter of Sheffer’s work.
Kaczmarek began reading with Selected Shorts some 16 years ago, when Sheffer was still in charge, and she has performed with the show from New York to the Getty in Los Angeles.
Storytelling has an immediacy, she said. The story can change as she reads — the audience laughs and she feels humor in new places, and it moves her to hear how closely the audience listens.
Hearing a story aloud feels personal, Jolly said. People hear stories read aloud as children, rarely as adults.
Jennifer Brennan, director of literary programs at Symphony Space, has curated this evening of stories with the actors, she said. The actors will not travel with this show or record it here — it will live for this one night, and they have created it for the Berkshires.
“There’s a sensibility (here),” Jolly said. “Smart, witty, savvy …”
She finds these evenings warm, thought-provoking and poignant now that Isaiah Sheffer is no longer here. He died after a stroke in 2012, but people across the country know his voice, and some Mahaiwe regulars have come to every Selected Shorts reading, she said.
The radio program also has a Berkshire following. Kaczmarek recalled talking with a local plumber who came to work on her house in Northwestern Connecticut and recognized her name from Selected Shorts. And she finds it comforting that short fiction draws so many listeners.
It always gives her a shiver on airplanes, she said, to walk past people watching television and playing video games and rarely see a book. She thinks of flying as time to read, removed from the goings on of the world.
“I hope we don’t lose out on it,” she said.
Photo at the top: A Smith Premier Typewriter abandoned at one of the stores in the ghost town of Bodie. Courtesy photo by Jon Sullivan.
If you go …
What: Selected Shorts, ‘Unforgettable Journeys’ with Jane Curtin and Robert Sean Leonard
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
Admission: $25 to $40