Sharr White’s new play seems a strange choice considering his last venture, The Other Place, was a contemporary drama about dementia and loss. The Snow Geese, set in 1917 but written in 2013, draws from Chekhovian influences, both tonally and architecturally; there is indeed a gun introduced in the first act, and it does, of course, go off in the second. Plot-wise, little else transpires. But Manhattan Theatre Club’s sentimental, often beautiful production, guided by acclaimed director Daniel Sullivan, lifts this play beyond simple avian symbolism.
As WWI rages across the Atlantic, a grieving family gathers in upstate New York to celebrate the opening of hunting season. Intricate, intimate dynamics are this play’s forte, and in its second half the lines between familial struggles and the American involvement in the war are nicely drawn. Although the dialogue here does not reach Chekhov’s standards, he would have nodded in appreciation of White’s preoccupations with foreignness – a German-American doctor tries in vain to renounce his roots – as well as class – a Ukrainian maid reminds everyone how relatively lucky they are. Yet the family secrets and self-delusions are distinctly American.
Among the deluded are the recently widowed Elizabeth Gaesling (Mary-Louise Parker, fragile and fed-up with grief), who butts heads with her pragmatic younger son Arnie (Brian Cross, in a terrific Broadway debut). Every touch, every glance between Parker and Cross is electro-charged, and when each finally forces the other to speak plainly about their predicament, sparks fly. The late Mr. Gaesling, it seems, left his family in crippling debt, a fact only Arnie seems to grasp. His brother Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) is blissfully unaware, both of their financial woes and of the seriousness of his deployment to France. Trying half-heartedly to keep the peace is Elizabeth’s conservative sister Clarissa (the phenomenal Victoria Clark) and her immigrant husband, “Uncle Max” (is there anything Danny Burstein can’t do?). Also featured are several geese.
John Lee Beatty designs yet another handsome set, and Parker looks luminous costumed in Jane Greenwood’s widows weeds. Lighting designer Japhy Weideman gave a fascinating interview for TDF Stages about his ability to enhance a scene’s conflict or mood. This production’s emotional heft lies in the kind of mundane chitchat which is, in the wake of pure and simple grief, a mask. Sharr White’s buoyant matriarch is always tugging her mask back into place, despite financial practicalities, sisterly strife, and the rising body count in Europe. By the end, the Gaeslings are both glancing back and stumbling forward, closer – perhaps – to accepting a new and bewildering reality. White’s riff is certainly no Cherry Orchard, but his delicate twists and turns in the last few minutes will pluck quietly at your heartstrings nonetheless.
By Jack Smart