Illusion blows a perfect storm
Class in classless America? Absolutely. In Jeffrey Hatcher's witty social drama, Mercy of a Storm, class gapes like a crevasse between two people who are clearly in love. Illusion Theater co-produced Storm with Florida Stage in Palm Beach and gives the play a potent staging that left me hungry for more.
Hatcher, who attended opening night, sets Storm on New Year's Eve in 1945 in the pool house of a top-end country club in Ohio. A blizzard howls outside and George, an attractive, middle-aged insurance executive, escapes the celebrations to set up the snow-bound pool house for a seduction. Or is it a seduction? In blows Zanovia, a beautiful bleached blonde younger woman. He's a WASP and a bastion of the country club set; she's Catholic and his erstwhile Polish housekeeper's daughter. They bring to this assignation lives shaped by two different worlds, a common history of hurt, misplaced loyalties, love, social censure and betrayal that seems insurmountable.
Part mystery, part comedy and part hot drama, this two-person play opens icily, both within and without, in spot-on acting.
George, played pitch-perfect by Steve Hendrickson, has just returned from a month-long trip to defeated Germany on behalf of the US government. He's urbane and pragmatic. During the course of the play, he comes to understand the hollowness of his privileged world and the worth of Zanovia. His growing awareness makes him appealing as a character, but an action he takes in the play's opening minutes brings him overwhelming regret. Hendrickson lives that regret as though it were his own.
Equally compelling is Carolyn Pool's Zanovia. She's a feisty icicle as the play opens, her words scorching darts, aimed to injure. Pool delivers her spit and sass with panache, but, as she and George recreate the pitfalls of their past, her bravado softens. She lets down her defenses as he re-awakens to her. Then the air between them crackles.
It's the heat between these two actors that gives this production its sizzle. Director Michael Bigelow Dixon, who is artistic associate and literary manager of the Guthrie, draws performances from Hendrickson and Pool that made me care about this unlikely couple.
Under Bigelow Dixon, I get a strong sense of ensemble collaboration in this production, from playwright through sound designer.
In the two-hour, including intermission, real time play, Hatcher deftly uses dialogue to sketch the geography of the upper-class world in which this mismatched pair must try to survive. George's vindictive daughter is about the same age as Zanovia, and the very names of Tootie's circle suggest a closed, self-indulgent society - there's Spiffy and Puss and Humpy, and George's chief friend and confidant is Hub. Hatcher gives Zanovia, in particular, dialogue that has a 1940s noir feel to it, as Pool shoots Bacall-like zingers.
Chad Dawch's superb set design reflects both easy affluence and the 1940s in delicious details, like a sailing ship ornament made out of horn, a cigarette box and an old, wooden-cased phonograph, with a large head for the needle. The lighting by Kyle Carlson throws dramatic silhouettes against frosted windows and shifts the mood inside the isolated pool house. Matt Briganti Kelly's sound design brings the Ohio blizzard and the distant club celebrations right into the Illusion's auditorium.
All elements knit tightly together in this strong production so, even though it's only nine degrees Fahrenheit in Minneapolis, wrap up and seek out this Storm. Like Zanovia, you'll find you soon have to slip out of that mink.
Mercy of a Storm January 23 - February 7, 2004. Thursday - Saturday 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday, January 31 at 2:00 p.m. $16 - $21. Illusion Theater, 8th floor of the Hennepin Center for the Performing Arts, Corner of Hennepin Avenue and Sixth Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-339-4944. Online: www.illusiontheater.org.