By Charles L. Mee
Directed by Brian Kulick
ACT Theatre
700 Union Street, Seattle, WA 98101 / (206) 292-7676

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

"Wintertime" is a dark, careening romp through improbable relationships and tenuously held beliefs about life, love and the possibility of happiness with another person. It's a farce in search of a conviction that none of the characters really hold, although they search desperately for it. As a play, it fights a losing battle to make its dramatic message as interesting as its technique. The cast is excellent, and director Brian Kulick gives Charles L. Mee's play an intelligent and confident presentation, but in the end it is all too contrived to be convincing, too prosaic to be moving, and too conceptual to be authentic.

On the slopes of a snow-covered landscape, beautifully designed and executed by Walt Spangler, three couples share a cabin and intricately interwoven relationships with each other. Much of the first act derives its energy from the often astonishing revelations of how these parents, former spouses, former lovers, frequent enemies and sometimes friends are related to the young couple who have come here for a relaxing escape. Such inconveniences as personal history, betrayals and drownings make that difficult.

As Jonathan, Michael A. Newcomer simply wants to believe that a real relationship is possible, in the face of all this role-model evidence that "no one trusts anyone, and no one is loved enough". His father (Robert Dorfman) is now with a man (Timothy McCuen Piggee) who believes in fidelity enough that he's constantly miserable and disappointed. His mother (Suzanne Grodner) is a worldly woman who has found stability with Francois (Daniel Oreskes), a man who adequately meets her lowest expectations. He is so good-natured about his complete amorality that he's virtually the only one in the play fully content with ethical neutrality as a law of nature. The older lesbian couple (Laura Kenny and Beth Andrisevic) are a fully self-contained universe of mutual disappointment, resentment, tolerance and contempt. Appearances by an outrageous ski patrol officer (wonderfully played by Liz McCarthy) and a rather frightening stranger trying to deliver a composter (Paul Morgan Stetler) fill out the ensemble. In the face of all this, young Ariel (Sarah Grace Wilson) is a walking garden of sentimental romance, lofty poetic language and barely concealed terror. Characters appear out of nowhere, with no real explanation of how they got here, or why, and immediately engage in the action. In the second act, an unexpected and absurd suicide (but only conditional) leads to an extended funeral, a realignment of expressed values, and a kind of resolution. It's all pretty damn peculiar.

That we are operating within the world, and by the rules, of farce is made clear with a cleverly choreographed scene in which a door rises from the snowbank, so that characters can slam it shut in various sequences and, (in spite of there being no dialogue) with varying degrees of editorial comment. The play is so mechanistic in its construction, in the ways in which people connect with one another, that a fair amount of the comedy is the sort that makes relationships feel like the donuts coming out of that machine in the old Lucy sketch. No one in this world ever thinks to just turn it off.

The first act has such energy and invention and disarming elan that it remains amusing even when it's most improbable. There's great energy in the fact that characters are so clearly in conflict with their own stated beliefs, that their actions belie their words, and that absolutely anything seems both possible and likely in this universe. It requires us to participate, to make judgements on what we hear and what we see. The second act simply deflates all of that energy. The funeral scene may be a nod to Emily in "Our Town", with its stark row of chairs filled with townspeople contemplating the meaning of their lives, but we're the ones who end up nodding. Instead of the sharp, surprising discoveries characters found in each other in the first act, now it's all discourse and pronouncement. Long monologues simply become tedious. By the time we return to more extraordinary action, it's too late. And the end of the play seems, to me, both false and unsatisfying.

Charles L. Mee is an adventurous and inventive playwright, and there is a passionate desire here to say something important about love, the odds against it, and the triumph it is capable of. But for me, this was all about a message delivered by the wrong means, about a script that seems forced and distorted, and one that simply tries too hard and never really gets where it wants to go. "Wintertime" is set in a landscape covered in beautiful, deep snow, and while the comedy is entertaining, the drama of these people seems to me equally dormant, equally waiting the warmth of spring to melt its icy, physical constraint.

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