“Winter” Tempers Harsh Realities with Humanity @ Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

“Winter” Tempers Harsh Realities with Humanity @ Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Theatre review by Kerstin Broockmann, January 15, 2017

3 ½ stars out of 4

Julie Jensen’s new play Winter has found a perfect companion in the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, which is presenting the second of rolling World Premieres for the National New Play Network. Both the ensemble and Chicago audiences who are able to see this powerful new work can be grateful to the forces that matched them. Winter (inspired by ROBECK, IN ENDING LIFE: Ethics and the Way We Die by Margaret Pabst Battin) is about the last season in the lives of two academics, who have decided that they will pass out of the world together when the time is right. Unfortunately, it has become clear that the time for leaving may not be the same for the two of them, a terrible irony of marriage. As their relatives descend on the cluttered household for Thanksgiving, the family struggles to work out where the couple’s journey will take them next. In Jensen’s expert hands, the many choices to be considered and the attitudes and approaches to living and dying become a bracing emotional and intellectual examination of humanity.

Jensen’s play is focused and economical—the characters come to life in dialogue that is both spare and resplendent. While the themes of family relations, mourning, life, aging, agency and death could be considered heavy, the 90 minutes of the play never seem labored; instead, the warmth and humor of the dialogue convey the depths of compassion that Jensen feels for her subjects (with the exception of Roddy, whose point of view is represented with less sympathy than the others). Both Jensen and the couple at the center of the play, especially Annis, whose end-of-life journey is threatening to veer out of her control with advancing dementia, are clear-eyed witnesses to the many ways that life slips away: careers end, bodies weaken, technology advances, words slip away and the sphere of life becomes smaller. It is refreshing and bracing to see the choices that attend these changes presented so eloquently and joyfully.

Onstage, Barbara E. Robertson is the perfect pick to bring Annis to life—she delivers a detailed, nuanced and fierce performance, and, very importantly, captures the part of Annis that she clings to even while it slips away, her love of and facility with words. Robertson realizes that Annis’s memory slips and the word-associations that she uses to grasp at the concepts she cannot articulate are not just frustrating attempts, but Annis’s final delight at the world she mastered for so long, and which now eludes her. Though elegiac, her performance is full of vitality and courage. As Annis’s husband, Robeck, Dan Flannery allows his character to slowly confront the truth that he has been avoiding—that he will not be able to follow through on perhaps the most important promise of his life. When he finally does so, he is also able to regain the patience and love that he has had to push aside, using his work (seeking the “Jesus gene” in mice) as an excuse. Flannery does not shortchange the journey to reconciliation, showing the fear and frustrations that attend it along with the devotion. Steve Haggard does an excellent job of balancing the immaturity of younger son Evan with the emotional insight that his genuine caring for his parents gives him. Living hand-to-mouth with few aspirations and little ability to create his own sense of order, Evan appreciates that his parents have created an order that works for them, and is determined to allow them to have that. This contrasts with older brother Roddy, played with forced, buttoned-down bonhomie by Sean Cooper, who sees only clutter and is worried (rightly) that his parents may have a plan for ending their lives. Not ready to face this, Roddy is arranging for a move to Crown Properties, an assisted living community—no grappling with choices, he knows what is right for the parents he rarely sees. Though this may be out of love for his parents, or some residual guilt about his sister Leah’s death, or simply the fact his parents’ decline is not in his control, Roddy comes across mostly as selfish, which undermines some of the valid arguments he presents (as does his unwillingness to actually have the argument). The final member of the family we see is LD, the daughter of Leah, who is trying to find her own identity. Engagingly portrayed by Martasia Jones, she is young, brash, opinionated, and ultimately the one person in the family who has the courage to allow Annis to make her choice, difficult as this is in light of her unresolved feelings about her mother’s death in a suspicious accident.

Directors Megan Carney and Mark Ulrich clearly have a deep understanding of Jensen’s work, guiding the cast to capture the small details of both word and gesture—the suspension when time slips away, the looks of recognition, the easy and loving familiarity with which Annis and Robeck spar, the discomfiture of the younger generation. The clean, open scenic design by Elvia Moreno puts the focus on the spaces that define the life that Robeck and Annis have created—the books and paper-strewn desk, the overstuffed chairs, the birches outside the window and the rarely-locked door—though the space is cluttered, not a moment is lost to poor sight lines. The lighting and sound design (by Michael Mahlum, lights, and Robert Hornbostel with LJ Luthringer, sound) help trace the accelerating pace of the decisions to be made in the household, and the ever more frequent breaks in Annis’s continuity, though sometimes the transitions between scenes take on a more ominous cast than the play warrants. Costume designer Stephanie Cluggish defines the characters in broad strokes in fabrics; with the clothes that the characters don for the Thanksgiving dinner contrasting (or not) with their everyday choices showing further insight into their approaches to the occasion. Scott Cummins provides choreography for the brief moment when tensions erupt into violence, and he, too, expertly follows the characters’ intentions and abilities. The whole ensemble, onstage and off, works together to give Jensen’s play a finely tuned and deeply felt production.

Under the sensitive, textured direction of Megan Carney and Mark Ulrich, with a remarkable performance by Barbara E. Robertson at its center, Rivendell’s premier of Julie Jensen’s Winter is a gripping and sympathetic treatment of the difficulties of aging gracefully, especially with dementia. Though 90 minutes is not enough time to fully examine the choices that face couples as they grow old together or their descendants, who must take on caretaking responsibilities as they do so, it presents many of these decisions. There are no easy answers, and Jensen does not shy away from the frustrations and fears that affect everyone, but she allows each of her characters to articulate their position, without condescension. The ensemble cast and production team have embraced this examination of the divergent paths that people take, whether by choice or not, and in doing so, they have created a beautiful, often humorous, and remarkably celebratory rumination on life and its seasons.

Winter runs through February 11, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Saturdays at 4:00pm (January 21 & 28 and February 4 & 11 only, with Town Hall discussions following Saturday matinees), at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue in Chicago. General admission tickets are $38 ($28 for students, seniors, active military and veterans). For more information or tickets, call the Box Office at (773) 334-7728 or visit www.RivendellTheatre.org. Additional information available at www.theatreinchicago.com.