Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Melissa Arctic: A Minnesotan Winter's Tale
Also see Bob's review of Fiction
Paul is visiting his old friend Lenny where both are enjoying the pleasure of ice fishing. Lenny, who has to get back home to his woolen mill and his young son Ferris, adamantly refuses Lenny's request that he extend his visit. However, when Lenny's wife Mina asks Paul to extend his visit, Paul readily accedes to her request. Lenny, who is already stressed by his failing business, gets it into his crazy head that Paul and Mina are having an affair, and he wildly relates his delusion to the deaf Carl (whom he employs in his barber shop). Carl warns Paul of the danger posed to him by Lenny.
Back home, Mina is with her good friends, the artistic culturally minded couple Cindy and Lindy. Cindy is painting her "masterpiece," a loving portrait of Mina. Lenny enters and threatens to smash the head of his baby daughter Melissa whom he believes to be the progeny of Paul. The crazed Lenny deliberately shoots himself in his hands. Cindy takes Mina and Melissa off for their safety. Later that night, Mina is killed when her car is hit by a truck, but Melissa survives the accident without serious injury. As Lenny still is homicidal toward Melissa, Lindy arranges for Melissa to live with a lonely farmer (Alec) in a distant town in order for her to be protected from him. There is then an intermission. When the story resumes, eighteen years will have passed. We will find Melissa being courted by Ferris, Paul's son, whose provenance is unknown to her. Paul is in angry pursuit of Ferris, who is determined to live on a farm and not follow his father's demand that he attend college.
Craig Wright's "play with songs" has a rustic, airy, American feel which is enhanced by director Aaron Posner's spacious and airy new production. While Melissa Arctic is not in any way slavish to Shakespeare, neither is it ever unfaithful. The basics of the story are intact, but the play itself is so completely and timelessly American in its characterizations, social milieu, style and language that it fits in neatly as part of the modern American literary landscape. It speaks directly to our concerns, attitudes, mores and relationships. There is a delightful "Prairie Home Companion" feel to a number of the characters and scenes. One particularly delightful one finds three fishermen bringing us up to speed by gossiping about recent happenings in the lives of their fellow Minnesotans. Here is one example of the play's homespun dialogue: "The problem with a family business is that it tends to be all about the business and not the family." A particular favorite line of mine is that the secret of life is that "No one can tell anyone anything." It's not Shakespeare, but it is evocative and lively Craig Wright. Wright seeks to illuminate the healing powers of art by providing an account of the manner in which Mina returns to life that is less ordinary than Shakespeare's account of Hermione's rebirth.
Eric Hissom (Paul) and Sidney Williams (Lenny) smoothly do much of the heavier lifting as, respectively, the embattled fathers of Ferris and Melissa. Chris Lopez (Carl), Barbara Kingsley (Cindy), Stephen D'Ambrose (Lindy), Sarah Grace Wilson (Mina), James Sugg (Alec) and Christopher Ryan Grant (Mike) are excellent in richly developed supporting roles. D'Ambrose and Grant double delightfully as two of the fishermen. Isabel Wallace, an extraordinarily self-contained and centered child actor seemingly omnipresent in the role of Time, doubles as the third fisherman (Owen Doherty alternates in these roles). Phoebe Holiday Ryan and Lorenzo Villanueva as the young romantics deliver sweet, unaffected performances.
Melissa Alice might well be described as the play in which Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale crosses paths with Thornton Wilder's Our Town. That's not a bad place for a play to be.
Melissa Arctic continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Matinees: Tuesday 10 a.m.; Wednesday 1 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday 3 p.m.) through April 5, 2009 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
Melissa Arctic by Craig Wright; directed by Aaron Posner