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A CurtainUp Review
The Snow Geese
By Elyse Sommer
Like The Other Place White's last play for Manhattan Theatre Club, The Snow Geese once again centers on a woman dealing with devastating loss, or rather avoiding dealing with it. But this time White has traveled back to 1917, a time when the whole country faces the end of a social era, massive financial and human losses. And Elizabeth Gaesling, the emotionally fragile widow is played Mary-Louis Parker in a welcome return to the stage after a long run in Showtime's Weeds, in which she also played a widow, but one with a very different coping mechanism.
To get the metaphoric parallels out of the way: The setting is a posh hunting lodge owned by the high living heir to a fortune built when his grandfather drilled and operated oil wells near Syracuse in the mid-Nineteenth Century, a fortune he has squandered away. The prize of the estate's yearly hunts is the mighty snow goose which must be captured in the air.
These shot down geese quite obviously symbolize the family's loss of its beloved husband and father as well of their entire way of life, shades not only of Chekhov's Seagull. The metaphor even extends to the family name, Gaesling, is derived from the old Norse use of that name as a variation of goose. Elizabeth's practical younger son Arnold (Brian Cross) and the family's being at the beautiful estate for the last time extends the Seagull kinship to Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. Add to this the play's structural kinship to Chekhov's penchant for introducing a gun which must go off (whether successfully or otherwise).
As you can see from the quote at the top of this review, the copy writers for the show's television ads have also run with the metaphor about geese in flight metaphor to create an aura of a play with more than familial issues. The play nevertheless is confined to the Gaesling's palatial second home.
The world in disarray theme is made palpable within the familial plot and setting through three characters. First we have the family's golden boy, twenty-year-old Duncan Gaesling (Evan Jonigkeit) in uniform and about to be shipped overseas. In fact, it's to give him a happy send-off that his mother has arranged this shooting party. Then there's Duncan's Uncle Max (Danny Burstein), a German born doctor married to Elizabeth's devoutly religious and practical sister Clarissa (Victoria Clark). Though Max still has an accent, he hasn't been to Germany for thirty years, and yet his home and practice became a casualty of the violent anti-German feeling during this period. Finally, there's Viktorya Gryaznoy (Jessica Love) the only remaining servant in the once generously staffed house, a Ukrainian refugee whose once wealthy family has already experienced losses that make the Gaesling's problems look trivial to her war-weary young eyes.
The opening scene involves a lot of fussing about setting a table for breakfast, people entering the stage and more or less establishing their personas one by one. Very Chekhovian indeed. But since this is not Chekhov but a new play by a contemporary writer, you may not be as willing to buy into White's rather inactive beginning. But if you stick with it, you'll find everything coming together with heightened drama after the intermission and even tug at your their heartstrings.
The second act with its exposes of the various relationships — the volatile sibling tensions between the two Gaesling sons and Elizabeth and her sister Clarissa, plus and some quite moving interaction between Max and Elizabeth. that said, the second act starts out with the play's major misstep, a dream flashback to Elizabeth's honeymoon that briefly brings the dead Theodore Gaesling (Christopher Innvar) back to life. The misstep isn't Innvar's (he's an excellent actor) but th author's. The scene just doesn't seem necessary and the writing is out of synch with the rest of the play.
No complaints about the acting overall. It's a bit of a shock to realize that Mary-Louise Parker is old enough to play the mother of grown-up sons. She looks as ravising as Vivien Leigh did in her widow's black in Gone With the Wind and brings an appealing ethereal grace to the role of a pampered, unrealistic woman who was so smitten with her husband that she fell in with his pattern of carefree living and unwise parenting.
Victoria Clark is always a treat to watch, whether singing as well as acting as she did in Light In the Piazza or in a non-musical play like this. But the true standout performance belongs to Danny Burstein. His accent is perfect and without loss of clarity. He's also the play's most sympathetic character and has both the most amusing and touching lines.
Ultimately the real scene stealer here is John Lee Beatty along with his scenery enhancing wizards — lighting designer Japhy Weidman and projectionist Rocco Disanti. This is more a minus than a plus as a play's stagecraft is supposed to support and not outshine the play.