Theater Review: A Gripping “Man in Snow” at the Gloucester Stage Company

Man in Snow encourages us to reflect on our own bit of mortality. We don’t probably take the time to do that enough; it’s appreciated.

Man in Snow, written and directed by Israel Horovitz. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord, Lighting Design by Mark O’Maley, Music by Julia Kent, Sound Design by David Reiffel, Costume Design by Chelsea Karl. Staged at Gloucester Stage, Gloucester, MA, through October 23.

David (Will Lyman) and Connie(Paul O’Brien) in the Gloucester Stage Company production of "Man in Snow." Photo; Gary Ng.

David (Will Lyman) and Connie (Paul O’Brien) in the Gloucester Stage Company production of “Man in Snow.” Photo: Gary Ng.

By David Greenham

On the last Wednesday evening of September, the city of Reykjavik. Iceland turned off all the street lights and encouraged residents to darken lights in their homes and businesses so that everyone could go outside to get a clear view of the northern lights.

As they stare at the night sky at several points in Man in Snow, Will Lyman’s David Kipling and Ron Nakahara’s Mr. Takayama understand why they’d do that. And by extension, so does playwright Israel Horovitz. “When God speaks, his words must be colors like these,” Mr. Takayama concludes. He is standing outside a cabin on Alaska’s Denali – the highest peak in North America. The time is prior to 2015, when it was still called Mount McKinley. But in this play, time doesn’t really matter. There is past and present. Perhaps even a little future.

At the center of Man in Snow is David, still reeling from the death of his son Joey (Fancisco Solorzano) in a motorcycle accident six years earlier. Newly retired, he’s come to McKinley to lead a group of Japanese honeymooners up the mountain to conceive a child in the unique magnetic field of the mountain. “I have a fearsome responsibility here,” he jokes with his wife Franny (Sandra Shipley). It seems absurd but to their translator, Mr. Takayama, but it’s perfectly sensible. In fact, he was conceived on the mountain.

Now, years later, both men have come back to the mountain for a cause. David points out that — in comparison to the barren, frozen landscape — their “white hair is no less white. We’re like men in snow.” Mr. Takayama has made this trip to leave the ashes of his beloved wife in the sacred place where they conceived several of their own children.

David has come at the request of his cousin, adventure tour manager Connie (Paul O’Brien), to lead the group of newlyweds, and discovers he feels closer to his son. “Do you believe there are dead people in the clouds?” he wonders. David certainly does; the haunted man has conversations with Joey. David talks about his infidelity, his strained relationship with his daughter Emily (Ashley Risteen), and speculates about what he could have done differently to prevent the death of his son. Regarding the latter, the answer is probably nothing. Nothing at all. In one of the lovely poetic moments of the play — the kind that make Horovitz’s writing jump off the page (and stage) — David writhes “even in my blinding grief, I see that all things are and then they aren’t.”

As the 90-minute story unfolds, we see glimpses into a man trying his best and grappling with his worst. Emily’s right, he did and does have a connection with his son that leaves her a little in the shadows. She points it out when describing her own mourning for her brother’s sudden death — but David can’t begin to grapple with it. A phone conversation from the mountain is filled with the debris of the loving, yet cautious, relationship that this father/ daughter is left with. David’s phone conversations with his wife evoke the settled-in nature of a couple who have had the ebb and flow of their seasons together reach a state of understanding and tolerance, respect, and love. And loss.

Phones are very much at the center of this story. We take for granted that the phone cuts our distances from each other, even when we are thousands of miles apart and in the most desolate places. There’s a satellite on top of the mountain, so voices can be heard as clear as a bell. Sometimes that’s a wonderful thing. As we learn in Man in Snow, sometimes it’s slowly heartbreaking. “Death is certain. It’s life that’s uncertain,” Mr. Takayama says. Maybe it comes off as a little stereotypical in the moment, but it’s certainly true.

We don’t often think about our last moments on this planet. Sometimes we can glimpse them. Thanks to cell phones, we have the opportunity to hear them after almost every major event. Technology has made the “Honey, I love you and I’m going to die” phone call ubiquitous. Horovitz writes in the program that such a phone call was the inspiration for this play. In 1997 he was in Fairbanks to see a production of one of his scripts and he read of an avalanche on Mount McKinley where a man was trapped in his cabin under 30 feet of snow and somehow managed to phone his wife to say goodbye. The incident sparked Man in Snow – first as an award-winning radio play on the BBC, and later as a staged version (in Italy) of the radio script. 20 years later, he’s expanded and deepened (I suspect) the play. It’s a quick 90 minutes and packs a punch. Still, it encourages us to reflect on our own bit of mortality. We don’t probably take the time to do that enough; it’s appreciated.

McFarland Lord’s simple set is assisted wonderfully by O’Maley’s lovely sculpted lighting, which is augmented by projections. His design keeps our focus right where it needs to be to follow the narrative’s many jumps in time and place. The costumes are a sort of comfortable loungewear that blend into the stark landscape with ease. And throughout there is a haunting soundscape featuring the music of Julia Kent and the sound design of David Reiffel.

Nakahara is moving and thoughtful as Mr. Takayama, and Sandra Shipley is rich and wonderful as Franny. Joey (Solorzano) and Emily (Risteen) are important characters, but they are a bit flat, though it is not really necessary that they be rounded-out. The same goes for O’Brien’s Connie, whose resonances are crucial in quiet moments, especially in a scene of anguish when David’s forced to admit an affair with a co-worker. Shipley’s best moments as Franny are when her confidence and determination stand out. “We’re even” she says flatly when she returns home late after having her own affair to exact revenge. “It wasn’t even that good,” she says defiantly. Franny seems uninterested in dancing around the issues. She’s probably a great book publisher – her profession in the play, and one that, in a wonderful twist, her daughter has taken up and is obviously successful in her own right.

But it’s Lyman’s David, with frequent support from the rest of the cast, who is at the center of this drama. His performance is all heart, infused with a complicating frustration. “In the crannies of my brain, a boiling rage continues, uncontrolled,” David confesses. It certainly seems to sum up America these days. And Horovitz gets it. Like the people of Reykjavik, maybe we need to turn off the lights once in a while, breathe, and quietly notice the majesty of the sky.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years

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