Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Girlfriend
Director Molly Smith, also the 20-year Artistic Director of Arena Stage, lived in Alaska for many years and co-founded Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, which co-commissioned Snow Child and will host this production following the Arena run.
John Strand's book, adapted from a novel by Eowyn Ivey, takes its inspiration from a Russian folktale about a childless couple who make the figure of a girl out of snow; the girl comes to life but never loses the impermanence of snow when the weather turns warm. In this retelling, set in the early 1920s, Mabel (Noll, wounded yet hopeful) and Jack (Bogart, determined) left their home in Pennsylvania after their child was stillborn, deciding to make a new life as homesteaders in Alaska. The work is hard and lonely, Jack worries that their farm won't sustain them through the winter, Mabel is isolated and just wants the pain to end ... and then Faina (Strazza) appears, a wide-eyed, seemingly feral child, trailed by a white fox. (The animal puppets are another highlight of the production. Dorothy James controls the fox stick puppet with great subtlety; David Landstrom and Calvin McCullough together manipulate a sturdy plow horse and Landstrom also embodies a large, elegant swan.)
Noll and Bogart bring rich voices and great dignity to their roles, and Strazza is a luminous presence whenever she appears. They get strong support from Dan Manning, Natalie Toro, and Alex Alferov as their nearest neighbors in the vast outdoors.
The score, with music by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt and lyrics by Stitt, uses bluegrass and folk-inspired melodies to ground the story in its specific time and place. Conductor William Yanesh leads five other musicians (including fiddle, mandolin, and banjo) from the keyboard. "Grateful" is a catchy hymn and other songs add to the depths of the characters.
Not everything works, however. Snow Child is part of Arena's series of Power Plays, play commissions focusing on defining moments in U.S. history (previous topics include the Camp David accords, the life of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and a legal case regarding tribal sovereignty on a Cherokee reservation). George (Manning), Esther (Toro), and their son Garrett (Alferov) occasionally toss off comments about how the elites in New York and Washington treat Alaska as their possession rather than letting the people who live there do what they have to do, but when survival is the main issue, politics fall to the side.