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|A CurtainUp Review
By Barbara K. Mehlman
Winterset, a 1935 play by American playwright Maxwell Anderson, is a love story about star-crossed lovers, a family story about a father protecting his son, and a crime story with gangsters and murderers. But the characters who dramatize Anderson's poetry are mainly tools to the play's ideas..
With the memory of the scandalous Sacco-Vanzetti case still stuck in his craw, Anderson wrote a drama that deals with justice not done, the hopelessness of poverty, fear of the new, man's eternal struggle to do the right thing, and the redemption of one's soul. (In case you're not familiar with the case:: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists who were arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for a robbery and murder they did not commit, in 1927. This travesty of justice which entailed corruption from the police all the way to the judge was prompted by prejudice against the newly-minted Americans).
The play opens under the Manhattan Bridge where we learn that Trock (Charles Parnell ), a murderer, killed a man but was never apprehended. An innocent Italian immigrant, Romagna, was tried, convicted, and executed instead. Trock's gangster crony, Garth (Christopher Black), was involved in that murder, and now that some professor has reopened the case, and is re-examining the evidence, Trock is afraid Garth will finger him. The investigation sets in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to the noble human goals of understanding and enlightenment, but it does so at a very high price for Garth's entire family.
Garth lives with his father, Esdras (Harris Berlinsky), a poor rabbi with a Talmudic bent, and his sister, Miriamne (Elise Stone), in a tenement under the same bridge. Esdras knows, yet doesn't know, that Garth was culpable; he has spent years protecting him with a lie, but the protection only served to mask the insistent rotting of both their souls. After all, he eventually asks, what else could a father do?
Into all this comes Mio (Tim Deak), Romagna's son, looking, like Electra, to avenge his father. He meets Miriamne (Elise Stone), unaware that her brother's testimony could have saved his father. The two fall in love and vow to build a life together. But the hopelessness of their hopes soon becomes apparent when the truth is revealed.
All the action comes to a climax when Judge Gaunt (Craig Smith) enters the scene, not knowing where he is, why he's there, or what he wants. He is old and tormented, with a sick soul; it was Gaunt who was responsible for sending Mio's father to the hangman with the knowledge that the man was innocent.
Winterset is a grim story with no relief save for a few humorously spoken lines by Gaunt. While the graceful blank verse is appropriate for the exploration of ideas the play generally is curiously uninvolving. Tim Deak is a passionate Romeo-like Mio. His love for Miriamne while convincing is too pure and idealistic to touch the heart.
Craig Smith, last seen as the dashing and energetic Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, continues to make a strong impression as the old Judge Gaunt. He is bent and sad, addled and disoriented -- totally believable. It's interesting to note that when One interesting bit of history: When Adamson directed the play 20 years ago it was with Smith as Mio.
Ms. Adamson's direction overall makes the most of the Jean Cocteau's tiny stage. She introduces one rather quirky and puzzling bit: Every time Garth, who has has left the life of crime to return to his violin playin is on stage that violin is in his hand almost like an appendage. Real musicians don't do this; violins are too fragile. When they're not playing, their instrument is put safely away. During a post-performance discussion with the director and cast, Christopher Black said that at first it did feel strange carrying the violin around, but that after a while he felt comfortable with it. It may have worked for him, but to this reviewer it struck an odd note.
All in all, this is a reasonably good production, but the play is better read than performed. The blank verse is frequently difficult to penetrate and absorb. The pace here is often too fast to allow this, with the actors on to the next scene by the time you figure it all out. These lines serve as an example: "To die when you are young and untouched, that's beggary to a miser of years, but the devils locked in synod shake and are daunted when men set their lives at hazard for the heart's love, and lose."
Many consider Winterset dated, but it is no more dated than Hamlet or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. The ideas are still relevant today and are always valid for exploration. Where this Winterset fails is in its inability to emotionally engage the audience.
Should you see it? If you can handle the bleakness, probably yes -- to hear the poetry and because it has historical value, because it enhances your understanding of where American theatre has its roots.