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August Snow & Night Dance
The Averys of North Carolina and their friends will remain in your hearts and minds long after the lights have dimmed the Mint Theater's small stage. Their talk is simple yet filled with the cadences and homespun poetry of theirs and author Reynolds Price's South.
Both August Snow and Night Dance center on young Neil Avery (Chris Payne Gilbert) who draws the other characters to him like the perennial bee to honey. In the first play, which takes place in 1937, Taw (Patricia Dunnock), Neil's wife of one year, feels it critical for him to give up his bachelor habits and commit himself more fully to her, insisting that "friendships (the good old boys getting drunk together kind) are meant to end in childhood with 5-year diaries." This brings her in conflict with his equally possessive mother Roma (Donna Davis) and his best friend Porter (Michael Williams Connors). Their landlady and Neil's childhood friend Genevieve (Lisa Bostnar) also loves Neil and urges Taw not to be angry with him (as she herself shows more patience than anger at her boyfriend Wayne's inability to make up his mind to marry her).
Night Dance moves us to 1945 and the end of World War II. The Avery clan and their friends are once more at critical points in their lives. Roma yearns for a grandchild but Taw an Neal have been reluctant to bring a child into a troubled world. Porter, having ceded to Taw's will to relinquish his hold on Neil has returned home (temporarily) after joining the Navy and Genevieve, who finally got her proposal at the end of the first play, now waits for Wayne's return from the war.
Director Jonathan Bank has maintained the plays' leisurely pace -- wisely so, even though this may take some getting used to for those accustomed to the quicker pulse of modern entertainment. The Mint Theater says it takes no longer than the movie Titanic to see both plays in one sitting. However, while Night Dance does have its explosive moments, this is not an edge-of-your-seat, plot-heavy theater experience. It's rewards are all in the language and the remarkable ordinariness of the characters. All are ably portrayed. Donna Davis is particularly good as the possessive mother. A compulsive "truth monger" who also happens to have some of the best lines, she manages to charm even as she infuriates. Patricia Dunnock's Taw, whose need to control and possess stems from the same childhood loss of parents as Roma's, is not quite as rounded and persuasive. The third woman in the ensemble, Lisa Bostnar, delivers fully on Genevieve's charm and softness. Anyone old enough to remember or who's thumbed through old pictures of Jean Harlow and Alice Faye will recognize her physical role models.
Of the three men, Michael William Connors stands out as Porter. He is rough hewn enough to be believable as Neil's best drinking buddy, sensitive enough for the suggestion of other currents in the relationship to be more than unwarranted speculation. As the half of the friendship team who feels "he can't breathe anywhere else" but who goes off to war while Neal stays home, Porter is reminiscent of the brother in O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon (see link) who loves the farm but ends up having the adventure for which his brother yearned. Neal's sitting out the war, by the way, is a factual flaw, since at the height of the war flat feet kept a man from active duty but not from being drafted for a desk job.
There are also several one-time appearances (in Night Dance). The better of these is by Stephen Payne as Wayne Watkins' funny and sad father Dob. The second, now played by Michael Colby Jones, was slated for Alyn Burrows (whose work with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox I've often admired ). As it turned out this character appeared in a scene which I found one of the major missteps of the evening -- a dream sequence that seemed an unnecessary second finale for Night Dance.
While I'm quibbling, Vicki R. Davis' bare bones staging is understandable given the budget constraints of a small company like the Mint. However, a coat of spray paint on the plastic material used to wall off actors' enter and exit might have helped make this device less visibly awkward. Rubber-soled shoes would have been even more helpful in making the movement around the peripheries of the stage more seamless (or, more specifically, soundless).
When these plays which are part of a trilogy were first presented, August Snow and Night Dance were done in the afternoon, and the third play, Better Days, followed in the evening after a break for supper. During the run of the current double bill one evening (11/29) has been set aside for a reading of Better Days which moves the action forward to Roma's funeral and the return of Taw and Neil's son from the Vietnam war.
Perhaps the best way to summarize the experience of seeing these plays is to quote the final sentence of Mr. Price's a program notes: " I've hoped to move further and make from one family's long discord, a broadly useful harmony -- a new old music and the dance it stirs."
Consumer Note: While three hours is a big investment of time for most people, the dollor expenditure for seeing both makes for an almost irresistible bargain -- just $5 extra for the second play, whether seen on separate evenings or all at once. You also save $10 if you go before 11/29.
Beyond the Horizon
A paperback edition of the full trilogy is being sold in the lobby of the Mint Theater, as are the author's most recent novels. Out-of-town readers or those unable to attend can order paperback editions of the two plays as well as two of his most recent novels which this reviewer read and liked. The novels are in stock at Amazon, the plays will take a little longer to get.
August Snow paperback
August Snow paperback
Kate Vaiden paperback. The first person narrator's family history has much in common with the characters in the Mint Theater plays -- early loss of parents, repetitive behavior patterns. The play's monologues may be viewed as a precursor to Reynold's use of a first person narrator.
Roxanne Slade. Price's latest book which spans a whole century into the life of one extraordinary-ordinary Southern woman. Again told in the first person.