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Opening the back door 

While you and I were tromping through the January snows, Ellen Hemphill and her Archipelago colleagues were prepping Snow, conceived and written by Hemphill and Nor Hall as a meditation on family and memory. Just as the street in front of my house looked familiar but different under a foot of white powder, Snow is recognizably an Archipelago production, but misses the emotional resonance and gnawing aftereffects that have made their previous shows so vital and startling.

The play starts deftly enough, as we see the Martin family siblings and their spouses on their way to a snowy resort in upstate New York. Their get-together honors their mother's dying wish that they decide on the future of the family farm. After an argument with his brothers, James, the oldest brother and an ornithologist, hikes into the hills to prove that he's seen a white owl. When he doesn't return, the rest of the party splits off into pairs to find him.

As they climb through the snowbound hills, they tell their stories: anecdotes about the Martins' harsh, demanding father and their patient, artistic mother; how they met their mates; the emotions and memories the snowy landscape stirs in them. As these family members explore their personalities and histories, we see that many of them are frozen in place, lost as to how they got so lost. It takes James' foolhardy quest to bring these siblings together and to begin breaking the ice both within and between them. Unfortunately, it's in these "what-happened-to-my-life" wanderings that the play itself loses its path, becoming in many ways a rather conventional--and dull--set of character monologues. What has always enchanted me about Archipelago productions is that they never assert--they tantalize. They get at your brain through the back door of your emotional imagination rather than through the front door of the rational intellect. But the production's middle section confronts the characters' emotional issues too directly and explicitly for believability and leaves little imaginative room for the audience to participate.

In addition, the wording in many of the monologues hints of written rather than spoken language, with sometimes shockingly imprecise images. One character paints a word picture of an iced-over pond and says it had "an indescribable color." Another character refers to "some unknowable force." It's the smoky language of myth and fable, a mood the creators try consciously to elicit. But Hemphill and Hall have also established a dangerous world where we care that these people find James quickly because the night is cold and the way is dark. We don't have time for this philosophizing and wandering.

It's almost criminal to have this much talent onstage and yet to use so little of it. Sam Piperato as James was difficult to hear, due to some technical difficulties on the night reviewed, but contributes more to the production as its musical composer and arranger. The rest of the cast are all strong performers, each with a moment where they take the stage; however, with the firepower assembled--including Christine Morris (who virtually disappears after her monologue), Kathryn Hunter Williams, Eric Singdahlsen, Jeffrey Carpenter, Ben Moore and Carol Parker--I expected more.

What's right with Snow is its technical wizardry in lighting, set, and sound design that brings forth a chilly shiver as you sit in Duke's cavernous Reynolds Theater. The actors clamber over and around scaffolding and white drapes that evoke a snowy, hilly landscape. Bird imagery is highlighted throughout, and the soundtrack of bird songs entices. Especially effective are the projections that blend pictures of snow-covered forests with isolated actors onstage into astonishingly beautiful monochromatic images. Have you ever seen those old black-and-white pictures showing Byrd or Scott on their polar expeditions? That's what these pictures look like.

Both visually and aurally, the show's final minutes eschew the search-and-rescue plot and begin knocking at that back door. A multi-voice chant accompanies a mesmerizing candlelight procession. The actors reconfigure and simultaneously sing, some in a keening wail, individual songs or melodies heard throughout the evening. Instead of cacophony, the effect is both overwhelming and stunning. It's a patented Archipelago moment, bringing together all of Snow's motifs--and the wounded members of the Martin family--into a unified whole. EndBlock

  • Archipelago's Snow explores the landscape of a family's loss.


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