Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 24, 2013
The Snow Geese by Sharr White. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Original music & sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Projection design by Rocco DiSanti. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Dances by Mimi Lieber. Cast: Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, Evan Jonigkeit, Brian Cross, Christopher Innvar, Jessica Love.
Oh, it does a fine job of importing the serene troubles and below-the-skin jitters of a family facing the devastation of the only way of life it's ever known. And if all you're looking for is another Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya with the names (barely) changed, then you'll delight with this slightly tweaked take on it. But beyond one, admittedly crucial, facet, neither White nor his director, Daniel Sullivan, nor their gifted cast succeeds in explaining what this is supposed to add up to on the final theatrical balance sheet.
With the kind of full-strength Anton Chekhov on which White has modeled this play, this is never much in question, even when it's given a sub-par production. Chekhov, however foreign his reasoning may be to our current eye, considered his plays comedies, and in their satire of the crumbling upper crust of turn-of-the-century Russia they subtly but chillingly predicted the downfall of an empire that was but a decade or so away. Those plays ring yet today with ominous occasion, and oddly draw their vitality from the notion that their characters don't know they're all already dead.
Without this detail baked in, without utter destruction casting its shadow over every line and inhalation, the impact is lost and the result more overblown than overwhelming. When White introduces us to the family that's inhabiting a Syracuse, New York, hunting lodge in November of 1917, the element of looming calamity is missing. It becomes clear fairly quickly that something may be amiss; the Gaesling patriarch, Theodore, died two months before, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth (Mary-Louise Parker) and sons Duncan and Arnold (Evan Jonigkeit and Brian Cross) to live with Elizabeth's sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark) and her German husband Max Hohmann (Danny Burstein). But there's an unmistakable okayness about everything.
They try to prove this, to themselves as well as us, by continuing their proud family tradition of the end-of-season hunt (there's a sky-high limit of 25 of the titular bird, for the record) that's brought them to the lodge. But while out shooting, the 20-year-old Duncan, who's just returned from college and is about to ship off to fight in the Great War, hears from the left-behind 18-year-old Arnold that as he's been straightening out the books his father left behind, he's discovered Dad neglected to leave any money behind with them.
Though he tries, White is unable to fully fuse the dueling personal and financial dramas into one consistent, compelling narrative the way he did with mental and familial instabilities in his magnetic debut play, The Other Place (seen at the Friedman earlier this year). He hasn't effortlessly translated Chekhovian forms to Wilsonian America, so the Gaeslings don't feel much more native than the Hohmanns do, which explodes the intended theme before it starts; the presence of a Ukrainian housekeeper (Jessica Love), who herself is an aristocrat on the outs, only further emphasizes the seams. And, though it's referenced now and then, World War Iwhich you'd think would be elementalis for the most part a bewildering non-event.
Director Daniel Sullivan does not pick up the slack as he might; his work is skeletal rather than rich, and imparts none of the dark urgency the writing years for but lacks. Set designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Jane Greenwood, and lighting designer Japhy Weideman hint at degraded elegance in their creations, but you don't quite believe with their work either that this place or these people were once great, which only makes accepting their downfall even more difficult.
Certain performances don't help. Key among these is Parker's: As she demonstrated with her disastrous 2009 Hedda Gabler, onstage she's more natural as an Everywoman than a haughty one-percenter, and neither her clothes nor the elevated attitude she's adopted to convey Elizabeth's tamped-down diffidence fit well on her. Jonigkeit, too, reads as far too ordinary, not as a playboy from birth who's hadand usedevery advantage; he evinces privilege in isolated flashes, but you need a steady burn. And without these two central characters flawlessly rendered, the rest of the play doesn't really work.
Even so, the other actors turn out fine portrayals in tune with the period and each other. Burstein presents all the history and all the pain of a hard-lived life in Max, and comes the closest to acknowledging the chaotic world around him. (His speech about being shunned by a friend who's better able to hide his own German name is particularly affecting.) Clark brings a crystalline awareness of her lot to the religious Clarissa that stands in stark contrast to the woman's sister, and her dispensing of real common-sense advice to Arnold when he needs it most is the play's most touching moment. Speaking of Cross, he goes a bit overboard early on but turns out some alluring complexities as the youngest man in the room must increasingly parent his entire family. Love and Christopher Innvar, who's seen as Theodore in a brief flashback, have the smallest and most one-note roles, but manage them expertly.
None of this is enough to suffice as a Chekhov riff on emotional terms, but White ultimately makes the bigger picture much clearer than the smaller one. Some late-show allusions suggest the Gaeslings as representatives not of the early 20th century, but the early 21sttheir crushing debt obligations terrifyingly in tune, and as historically short-sighted, as our own. The more they overtly resemble an America in crisis, and the more they're forced to address and pay for their own shortcomings, the more powerful The Snow Geese is.
By its final scenes, it's considerably powerful indeed. But it takes too long to realize, or even recognize, its promise. At least the ideas are there, and that counts for something, but they'd matter more if, as Chekhov did, White could more deftly chart the decline of a country and the decline of a family at the same time.