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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Ice Glen
You certainly won't find a more site-specific production any time soon, given Shakespeare & Company's own experience at Springlawn Mansion. While the Company has during the past several years brought Springlawn back to life as a second stage for its smaller productions, their finances have not allowed them to make much needed interior and exterior repairs and the Mansion and thirty surrounding acres have been sold. Thus Ice Glen not only celebrates the beauty of this and other Gilded Age Cottages and their magnificent natural surroundings, but serves an apt offering for this venue's final season as part of Shakespeare & Company.
But as Shakespeare & Company continues its pattern of creative growth, despite financial setbacks, so Ackerman uses Dulce Bainbridge's straitened circumstances to send her on a journey that almost breaks her heart but finally frees her from being able to function only within the orbit of a dynamic man. To add to the play's complexity, there are two other characters for whom the title locale (a spot in Stockbridge retaining its ice all year) is a symbol for the ice in their hearts and minds that must melt before the play ends: Sarah Harding (portrayed with fiery intensity by Kristin Wold), the reclusive young woman who, like Grainger, Mrs. Roswell and Denby, is a holdover servant from Stone Gate Mansion's glory days. Sarah's job is as the Mansion's gardener. Unlike Grainger and Mrs. Roswell, who are solid, grounding figures, Sarah is an ethereal, untamed spirit more strongly drawn to the animals than the humans around her. She is also a gifted poet. It is through three of her poems sent by Samuel Bainbridge to Edith Wharton and by Wharton to Peter Woodburn (Michael Hammond) the editor of The Atlantic Monthly that the plot becomes a three-way journey of change and growth and in the process explores such questions as nature's effect on life and art and an artist's rights and obligations.
After an opening scene that establishes Sarah's rather convoluted metaphoric relationship with a bear, the poems that landed on Peter Woodburn's desk brings the editor to Stone Gate Mansion to find out why Sarah hasn't replied to his letters expressing interest in publishing them. Sarah, unlike the poets he usually encounters who are eager for public acclaim, has her own ideas about having her words become public property. She feels that a writer's words "are just relics of an event that's passed" and views Woodburn's having memorized her poems as a theft.
While Woodburn fails to persuade Sarah that art is something to share and in fact incurs her hostility, he receives a much warmer welcome from Dulce Bainbridge. She insists that he stay to dinner and having an attractive, important man at her table once again is a heady experience. The lovely widow is clearly smitten and, what with a fine meal and good wine, Woodburn's frustration is easily diverted to a romantic interlude with Dulce.
This not being a historical romance, that evening does not lead to a happily ever after ending but neither does it end in tragedy. In one of the play's and Aspenlieder's best and most amusing scenes, Dulce gets a chance to have a triumphant second meeting with Woodburn. What's more, besides finding the strength and wisdom to make a start towards creating her own happy ending, she finds a way to enable the editor to deal with the deep feelings aroused by Sarah as well as her words -- which in turn opens Sarah to realizing that some people might indeed understand the essence of her poetry and even help her expand her writing.
Although Tina Packer expertly maneuvers the cast through a dozen scene shifts, the site-specific parlor stage which give this production its deliciously atmospheric authenticity also works against it. This is not an easy stage for preventing the intra-scene prop-shifts from being awkward and overly long. Packer has tried to offset this by actually making these scene changes entertaining -- most notably when Grayson and Denby set the table for the dinner to fete the visiting editor, using marker sticks to insure that silverware and plates are placed precisely right. However, interesting as this little lesson in Gilded Age style is, it is a directorial filip that distracts from our total involvement with the characters and story.
As the lengthy intra-scene busyness distracts from the plot, so giving everyything equal time tends to undercut the momentum of the big scenes. At two and a half hours, a few nips and tucks would add to the pace as well as the overall impact. (Some of Mrs. Roswell's soliloquies, the business about Denby milking the dogs, and Denby and Sarah's copycat Ethan Frome sledding scene are some candidates for blue pencilling that come to mind).
Ice Glen's strengths far outweigh its shortcomings and it's sure to see life in other theaters. In the meantime, you can catch it in this its oh so natural habitat through Labor Day-- and wouldn't it be nice if, whether at Spring Lawn or elsewhere on the company's property, Tina Packer could re-stage it during the play's own Fall season time frame.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER PLAYS BY JOAN ACKERMAN
The Batting Cage (Off-Broadway)
The Batting Cage(Berkshires Theatre Festival)
Off the Map (Shakespeare & Co.)