Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Ice Glen"

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"The Ice Glen"

Reviewed by G. L. Horton

"The Ice Glen"

by Joan Ackermann
directed by Tina Packer

Denby --- Brian Weaver
Grayson --- Dennis Krausnick
Sarah Harding --- Karen Wold
Mrs. Roswell --- Gillian Seidl
Dulce Bainbridge -- Elizabeth Aspenlieder
Peter Woodburn --- Michael Hammond
Miss Briggs --- Lydia Barnett-Mulligan

The decaying mansion-- Stonegate-- in which Joan Ackermann has set her new play is very much like the one-- Spring Lawn-- in which it is performed, with the same breathtaking landscape visible from the windows. It is about writers and artists in the early 1900's who are much like those who still find inspiration in the spirit of the place, and patronage from the rich folk and tourists who seasonally enjoy the Berkshires' rare blend of unspoiled nature and high culture; and about the working people who live there year round, maintaining the houses and land and serving the visitors. Writing specifically for Shakespeare & Company and its unique core of actors who live and work locally and have made understanding and interpreting the history of their community part of their artistic mission for more than two decades, the playwright draws on this richness of experience to ground the characters' airiest flights. It works: all the onstage characters and a few offstage ones are so vivid and vulnerable and well intentioned that what happens to them and how they choose to deal with it and whether or not they hurt each other irreparably comes to matter intensely.

The Ice Glen of the title is a Berkshire valley where the winter snow endures throughout the summer, a mini-glacier sheltered by an overhanging cavern. The path to the ice is steep and rocky, overgrown with brambles and fallen trees-- a challenge to all but the most strenuous seeker of the Romantic Sublime. The reward is not just wilderness and beauty, but paradox: dangerous serenity, ice that is hot to the touch. The seeker in the play's instance is one Peter Woodburn (Michael Hammond), poetry editor of the post W.W.I Atlantic Monthly of Boston, on the trail of an unknown Berkshire writer whose verse has made his pulse race and his hair stand on end. The elusive Sarah Harding (Karen Wold) has not replied to his letters praising and offering to publish the three poems of hers sent to him by the Berkshire's foremost literary dame, Edith Wharton. Woodburn is eager to meet the young woman, to lay at her feet the gifts of attention and approbation and even money that his prestigious magazine has to bestow-- and to discover all there is to know about an important new talent he intends to introduce to a grateful public. He tracks Harding down at Stonegate, the country house where she roams the woods in male attire and works as groundskeeper in exchange for her keep and a writing studio in the loft of the mansion's barn.

Sarah Harding is not pleased to see her admirer. Her poems are private. She did not send them to his magazine. They were not intended for his eyes, and his reading of them is an invasion of her psyche, on a par with the behavior of a man who opens a locked diary or peeps at woman through a curtained window. She has no concern for fame or fortune, and nothing to say to Woodburn except "Go away and leave me alone."

Rebuffed but not resigned, Woodburn lays siege to the territory. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a work of art-- or had a crush on an artist -- can't help but feel for Hammond's Woodburn. He's not crass: he's just so full of the noble intentions and poetic sensibility that he can't understand why any sane person would say "No" him. He easily charms Stonegate's mistress, Dulce Bainbridge (Elizabeth Aspenlieder). The widow of a philanthropist and art patron famous for his hospitality, Dulce invites Woodburn to extend his stay. He sets out to experience the Ice Glen described in one of Sarah's poems, to learn all he can about the mysteriously metaphoric Bear who figures so potently in another, and to extract from the members of the household every fragment of information that might help him understand and tame the wild spirit whose poems have become his obsession.

The characters whose already precarious lives are shaken up by Woodburn's quest are the few inhabitants of the once bustling Stonegate who remain two years after Bainbridge's sudden death, when it was discovered that most of the fortune that supported the philanthropist's lavish style of leisure, culture, and charity had melted away. In the role of the bereft wife, Dulce, whose straightened circumstances seem to be a kind of exile or even prison, Aspenlieder shows us a woman frozen in place, who summons up her resources to entertain the unexpected visitor from the urbane circles in which her husband moved, recalling and reprising her supporting role. Those resources include damped fires and hidden depths: once Dulce begins to come back to life, anything may happen.

As Stonegate's cook-housekeeper, Mrs. Roswell, Gillian Seidl adds maternal warmth and resilience-- her kitchen, not the echoing formal rooms, is the heart of the household. Her masculine counterpart is the butler-of-all work, Grayson, an elderly gentleman's gentleman of impressive competence, surprising intelligence, and unfailing tact. Dennis Krausnick has been growing into roles like this over the years, and he plays this one to perfection. When Krausnick shifts the furniture between scenes in character as Grayson, each little detail of the way he handles the props implying decades of specific experience, the effect is timeless, meditative, full. There's no hurry for the next scene to begin.

Brian Weaver plays Denby, a half-wild local "simpleton"given shelter by Bainbridge's generosity. Like the adolescent Bear's, Denby's high spirits and affection can be dangerous. When Wold'Sarah and Weaver's Denby romp together, their scene is both sweet and terrifying.

Exquisite layering such as this is characteristic of director Tina Packer's work with her home team, those who have trained and performed together and built a common vocabulary that is physical and emotional as well as verbal. Ackermann's words are not easy: she signals her level of artifice early on, naming her characters as if they were in an 18th century play rather than one laid in the 20th and written in the 21st. One character's diction is that of a professional intellectual, another a poet's, a third an Irish immigrant's with a touch of blarney about her-- while Dulce Bainbridge and the upper servants practice the Late Victorian formality that lingered among the upper class well into the Modern Age, but sounds very distant today. Denby, as a "natural”, has a rough poetry all his own. But difficult words, and primal emotions working beneath a surface formality, are mother's milk to Shakespeare & Company. They thrive on Ackermann's in Ice Glen, and the result is a thrilling journey for actors and audience alike.

"The Ice Glen"
Kemble Street, LENOX MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide