Winter People - Boston Playwrights' Theatre
Winter People – Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
Winter People is presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. Written by Laura Neill. Directed by Avital Shira. Scenic Design: Kayla Williams. Lighting Design: Mark Fortunato. Sound Design: Aubrey Dube. Costume Design: Chloe Chafetz. Fight Choreographer: Jessica Scout Malone. Dramaturg: Cayenne Douglass.
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s new production, Winter People by Laura Neill, creates a community by showing one in disintegration. It builds its narrative by pulling us, scene by scene, through the stories of five different families that make their home in the Hamptons. They’re not the upper of the upper class we usually associate with the Hamptons, the ones who summer in the McMansions. Rather, they’re the middle and lower--middle class Americans that make the area their home year-round, the ones who stay through the winter. A wide cast of characters from this community is allowed to interact in a way that might put you in mind of a Robert Altman film. Neil’s play has that kind of laid back approach to its storytelling. The play begins with a mystery, but that soon fades into the background. She’s more interested in showing how these five families intersect with each other until they form a much larger web and how their fates play into each other. That first mystery (and what it builds on) pulls you in and thanks to the skills of the actors, the play has a handful of arresting moments. But you might leave the theater (as I did) feeling as though the premise has been skimmed rather than dived into.
The mystery that sparks the action of the play starts a whiff of smoke. Lynn, matriarch of the Brown family, opens the show talking directly to the audience about her daughter, Taylor. Taylor has not only just gotten into college, but has been informed that one of the Hampton locals (one of the McMansion 1%) is giving her a full ride scholarship. For Lynn, the future is looking bright. But then she notices that whiff of smoke. Cut to Taylor and her best friend, Cat, on the other side of town, out for a midmorning jog. The two are your typical American teenagers, talking about plans for the future and hiding their latest drug experiences from their parents. Then they get a text. One of the McMansions owned by the summer people is burning to the ground. Cut to just outside the burning building where volunteer firefighters Rob (Cat’s cousin) and Shaun are watching the blaze. Cut to Raul, the undocumented worker being blamed for starting the fire being held in the local police station and Jason, the lawyer looking to keep him from being deported. Cut to…well, you get the idea. Winter People moves along, slowly teasing out details for the audience to build a picture of what happened. Who started the fire? What happened? A local girl, Haley, has gone missing. Is she involved? We’ll eventually find out and along the way we’ll see the effects, both big and small, that the fire has on each member of the community.
All in all, there are fourteen characters from five different families we’ll meet over the course of 100 minutes. If that sounds like a lot to keep track of, Neil and director Avital Shira try to keep things clear by having one actor play all members of a particular family. The double and triple casting acts as a kind of visual shortcut for the audience to understanding how individual characters are related across scenes. It’s an experiment that mostly pays off. On the plus side, it saves Neill from having to load the start of each scene with a lot of heavy-handed exposition explaining who each person is in the larger narrative. But at times I do think the technique can act as a double-edged sword. In scenes when actors are performing across gender lines, it wasn’t always clear to me that’s what was happening until we were well into it (such as a male actor playing a female character as opposed to playing someone closer to the middle of the gender spectrum).
I walked away from Winter People feeling unfulfilled and I’ve spent the last few days struggling to put my finger on exactly why that is. I think that it comes from being unable to shake the feeling that the play was always keeping the characters an arm’s length away. Take a scene late in the play when one character reveals a long hidden attraction to another and is rebuffed in a particularly harsh manner (Sorry, spoilers prevent me from revealing names). The scene ends without any real information as to why the advances were refused the way they were. What in the community shaped this kind of response? For that matter, what does it feel like for the first character to have this unrequited attraction? We leave the scene feeling that there’s a larger story we’re not getting. It would be okay if this happened a handful of times (it would build the sense of a world outside the boundaries of the play), but it keeps happening to diminishing returns. And because we’re not presented with those larger stories it feels as though we’re being presented with snapshots of characters rather than full portraits.
Take another scene between Lynn and Sue, where Sue thoughtlessly asks Lynn a handful of outrageously racist questions and Lynn replies with the patience of a modern-day saint. She even overlooks Sue’s behavior to help her. Does Sue really not see how vile her behavior is? Why is Lynn continuing to engage with a person who treats her like this when she could just as easily walk away? It’s not that I need to see a direct one-to-one correlation between something that happened in the characters’ past with their present selves, but I want to get some sense of where this behavior is coming from. Otherwise the character is just a collection of descriptors. If I’m not allowed to see how these bits fit into the whole person, I may have sympathy for a character’s plight at the right moments but I’m prevented from making the cross into empathy.
There are, however, moments when I think that the cast of actors really shines through and clicks with the material. As Taylor, Lyndsay Allyn Cox has a devastating scene where she’s the recipient of some of Sue’s (Kayla Lian) meanness. Director Shira stages the moment with Cox facing the audience allowing us to see the tears Taylor’s is suppressing as she realizes that her dreams are going up in the smoke. Jaime Carrillo digs into a monologue his character Jason delivers about the importance of protecting his Native American heritage. Carillo sells the moment in a way that allows me to understand the character’s actions later in the narrative.
Winter People ends on a moment of melancholy. Time has passed and the effects of that single event, the fire, have reverberated through the winter people of the Hamptons. For those who remain, the wreckage is left to be collected. We come out having seen the wreckage but I’m not sure we’re the wiser for it.
Winter People is presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre December 6-16, 2018.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.bostonplaywrights.org