note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark
Set Design by Kathy Powers & Jason Southerland
Lighting Design by Dina Gjersten
Costume Design by Molly Trainer
Sound Design by Jeremy Wilson
Music Direction by Barry F. Wyner
Stage Manager Nicole Jesson
Private Jim Bailey.....Charles Linshaw
Maja Ardal's "Midnight Sun," set in 1942, is a jagged, quirky story about three American invasions of Iceland. The first was Movies that transformed every young woman into a wanabee film character --- to the point of dressing like their favorite stars at their little town's Saturday dances, and seeing their swains as Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart likealooks. Flowing along and feeding this frenzied fad was Jazz. After these assaults came troops of the American Army, offering jobs and silk-stockings and Southern Comfort and so starved for feminine friends as to advertise a "Big Band Ball" for midsummer-night and rudely invite only single women to come and ... dance.
Ardal builds her play of threes, and her central characters are three women of different ages: Eileen Nugent is Prila, in her early twenties and eager for life --- the first hesitant telephone switchboard operator in town, the machine in her living-room. Kippy Goldfarb is Hildur her mother, dourly suspicious of fads (What can this "Rita Haystack" teach Iceland?), but with an independent mind and a respect for traditions and myths. Jennifer McKay is Sissa, Hildur's youngest, at fourteen demanding a christening-party to make her a real woman. ("Sissa's not a name! It just means sister!"); the town thinks her a half-wit because she sees no difference between "The Wizard of Oz" and The Hidden Ones --- spirits of the volcanic mountains who live in her cellar.
And Prila has three suitors: There is James Barton as Kari, back in an American boat after trying for two years in Nazi occupied Denmark to cure (with jazz) a drunkenness that made him flee after a sudden murderous rage. In that time he traded the anchor of the piano for a trumpet "with which you can go anywhere," and where he hopes it takes him is America, to try to work his way into the pantheon of his gods: Fats Waller and Bix Beiderbecke.
Jason Schuchman is his bespectacled, literary brother Petur, finally summoning the courage to propose and take Prila to Boston where a scholarship awaits him. His is the speech that welcomes the Americans, but as the newspaper's editor his Icelandic pride is outraged by their crass, lewd, obvious invitation.
Charles Linshaw plays the over-eager Private Jim Bailey, a radio-operator, disc-jockey and drummer eager to buy Prila's reciprocal affection with presents, or with a chance to sing with the American jazz-band Kari has arranged --- at that Big Band Ball Petur forbids her or any other respectable townswoman to attend.
There is more --- plenty of shocks and turns in the second act! --- but that outlines the main interactions. More importantly, Ardal has a way of drawing sharp, wounding conflicts that suddenly flip into shockingly comic resolutions, then flipping them right back again. There are always interesting surprises waiting another line away.
And the players are excellent. McKay's Sissa has the biting tongue of a child unaware of her wounding strength and a longing for the "adult life" she's seen on the screen. Goldfarb's face is etched with lines of granite, yet she is always capable of a pointed joke.
At the middle of the conflict, Schuchman's Petur must always balance an eager reach for the new with reluctance to sacrifice the old. Barton's Kari is all poetry, Linshaw's soldier America personified.
But it is Nugent whose discoveries and insights about each of her men make her hesitate between the self-images each one offers her. From her renditions (in one) of "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" that opens the show to "Skylark" which closes it, it is through her eyes the play takes on its proud, eager, uncompromising flavor.
It is a complicated script, and Director Jason Southerland has strewn all its short, quick scenes across a wide, minimal stage, with actors sprinting from place to time to insight to keep its brisk pace. A live band backstage accompanies and sets the scene with live jazz standards, and Jeremy Wilson's intricate sound design mixes old records with background noises and even at one point swells the stage with crowds and rioters felt rather than seen. With so much unfamiliar material to be introduced as quickly as possible, it's amazing that these very lively characters are never swamped by history. Southerland is a master.
Iceland, the playwright told us opening night (she was born there), survived all three invasions and emerged with a healthy theater scene alive and intact. After productions in Canada and Iceland, "Midnight Sun's" American premiere on The Gloucester Stage meets a new audience with snapshots of our shared past. America as well as Iceland survived their confrontation a bit more insightful, and with a tendency to smile. The enthusiastic crowd out in Gloucester apparently felt the same.