Pillows fly and china shatters, but love still emerges victorious in Charles L. Mee’s “Wintertime,” the opening play of the Long Wharf Theatre’s new season.
Produced in association with La Jolla Playhouse in California, “Wintertime” presents a captivating, fluid story of lovers and the bonds they forge. Mee investigates the struggle for a genuine and lasting relationship in the midst of jealousies, affairs and distrust.
Set in the blustery cold of winter, the play opens with snow falling among the birch trees and a soprano singing in the background — a sharp contrast to the chaos brewing inside the cottage. Jonathan (Mark Saturno) intends to propose to his girlfriend Ariel (Michi Barall), but their cheerful smiles soon disappear as his cheating parents arrive with their lovers. A tangled dispute arises between father and son, husband and wife, and lovers young and old.
Mee’s characters are variously gay, unsatisfied, lustful and innocent, but the cast sensitively expresses these complex emotions. Randy Danson (Maria) and Nicholas Hormann DRA ’73 (Frank) play the unfaithful couple effectively. Danson’s multiple roles as mother, lover and wife are each particularly well-articulated. As Maria’s lover, Francois Giroday (Francois) dominates the stage, particularly in a raunchy, strobe-lit scene in which he attempts to seduce his lover’s husband’s gay lover (Tom Nelis). Yes, it’s complicated. Mixing it up (much like Shakespeare’s fools), the lesbian neighbors (Laura Klein and Lola Pashalinski) add another comic but heartfelt dimension to the melee.
“Love of any kind, it’s a wonderful thing,” says Francois, in his rich French accent.
At times, the play threatens to drown in its own sea of words. But fortunately, when the flood begins to overwhelm the audience, speech stops and opera takes over, in one case sung by Edmund — and yes, it is Nelis singing. His transcendently beautiful voice transfixes both the characters and audience. Waters’ juxtapositions of art and anger are at first surprising but ultimately satisfying. During one emotional storm the actors slam a door (erected onstage for the purpose) through an entire song. They execute the scene perfectly, moving with the surge and ebb of the music and emitting only guttural noises. Yet the laughter subsides as Ariel ends the scene with a final close of the door, silent and slow.
By tempering humor with raw emotion, Mee’s play proves to be only partly a farce and mostly a poignant look into human nature. One sympathizes with the characters when their true natures are revealed to them by others.
When news of Maria’s drowning comes near the end of the play, the set changes from white to a somber black. Quarrels are unfinished, but apologies are now exchanged freely. The characters’ speeches about love may be hackneyed, but they have at least learned more about themselves and their own attempts at emotional honesty.
Under Waters’ direction, the actors speak and move awkwardly as they sit on their black chairs, but this minor weakness is soon forgiven as the plot takes another turn and ends the play in the frat-like revelry of a New Year’s party (complete with mooning! be warned!).
Nevertheless, Mee’s play is not a fluff piece — not everyone lives happily ever after.
“For some of us,” Frank says, “it turns out to be exactly the same, no matter how many chances we get.”
From beginning to end, the opera-laced “Wintertime” remains engaging. A striptease and an outstanding cast make the play’s explorations of love in all its forms fresh and touching.