A Drama That Snowballs

David and Martha Flanagan are brother and sister, each burdened by memories of the past, each practiced at covering up pain, living together in their childhood home. Vietnam veteran David, once a high school golden boy, now numbs himself with alcohol, cigarettes, and casual sex in order to forget how his best friend died during combat. Science teacher Martha, plain, shy, inexperienced with men, avoids pursuing dreams of finding love by housekeeping for her brother. Until 5:00 a.m. on the first day of fishing season -- howling at their front door to wake the dead, Megs, an old army pal of David's, whips into their lives like a twister. Their complacency is about to be blown out of the water.

So begins Florida Shakespeare Theatre's (FST) crackling, soulful production of Stephen Metcalfe's Strange Snow. Passionately directed by Juan F. Cejas and featuring mesmerizing, uninhibited performances by James Baldwin, Peter Paul De Leo, and Barbara Sloan, the show opens with such high energy that at first it's hard to imagine where the play can possibly go from there. Be prepared to be surprised; Cejas, perfectly in control of the tempo, paces the script on the rhythms of each character's unfolding self-awareness. He slowly reins in the manic, motor-mouthed Megs (Baldwin), modulates the character's interactions with David (De Leo) and Martha (Sloan), and builds, over the course of two acts, to a series of confrontations, some of which are blatantly rage-driven while others are laced with quieter suffering. Each confrontation forces the characters to grapple with their pasts and, to varying degrees, frees them to face the future.

FST's rendition of Metcalfe's 1982 dramatic comedy illustrates how solid direction and rich portrayals can turn good writing into great theater. In Strange Snow, Metcalfe crosses a male-bonding story with a heart-on-your-sleeve romance between lonely souls and comes up with a contemporary tale of redemption. At times the author's approach borders on the predictable. Although sharply wrought in certain places and lyrical in others, the writing can also be maudlin and obvious ("Some of us, if we didn't drink we'd cut our wrists," observes Megs); in the meantime, the plot points (that first surge of anger, the first confession, the obligatory yelling match between army buddies) can be seen coming from ten miles down the pike. Yet Cejas subverts the script's predictability by focusing on the humanity of the characters instead of the shock value of their outbursts and revelations.

Sloan, De Leo, and Baldwin move in concert without skipping a beat, listening and connecting -- or not listening and not connecting, depending on what their relationships dictate at the moment -- throughout the evening. They bring such authenticity to their roles you may find yourself flashing on scenes from the show for days afterward: Megs and Martha slow dancing in the kitchen; David brooding by the kitchen door with a cigarette and a drink while his sister and friend eat dinner without him.

Baldwin layers his irrepressible -- and irresistible -- depiction of greasy-haired, bow-legged auto mechanic Megs with so many details it shimmers. Initially you think you know the guy -- he's the crude, volatile jerk at the diner counter who won't let you drink your coffee in peace, regaling you with self-absorbed stories and stupid jokes no matter how many times you sigh and look away -- until Baldwin reveals what is behind all that posturing: sadness, sweetness, vulnerability, courage.

Sloan portrays Martha with equal resonance, refusing to stereotype her as either an overly rigid or a typically needy woman-without-a-man. The character may not be savvy around guys, but Sloan plays Martha as someone who approaches every other area of her life with spunk and integrity. And when it comes to feelings for her brother, the actress takes Martha through a range of emotions, from resentment to tenderness.

Fraught with conflict and ambivalence in real life, sibling relationships can prove just as dramatic on-stage, provided the actors convince the audience that their characters are really related. As Martha and David, Sloan and De Leo appear utterly convincing as brother and sister. At first Martha seems more dependent on David, but as the evening progresses De Leo achingly reveals just how much David relies on his sister.

De Leo has less to work with in portraying David than do Sloan and Baldwin with their characters. Of the three, David was developed the least by Metcalfe, who consigns him to a drunken coma on the couch or sends him out of the house to the local bar for long stretches during this play. Then, when he wakes up or shows up, David is dead to his feelings, refusing to remember key events in his life or assuming a witheringly cynical stance about what he does remember. But De Leo seems right at home with the inarticulate chap, and he fleshes out the character as a tough-talking yet lost soul. In particular, he communicates David's despair during the inevitable high-pitched scream fest with Megs.

Polished scenic and lighting design and carefully chosen music meticulously round out the evening. Mike Martin's set, consisting of a well-appointed first floor of a working-class house, provides the physical background for the piece, while sound designers Cejas and John Lengel punctuate the evening with music from artists like John Lennon, Van Morrison, and Edie Brickell.

With Strange Snow, FST simultaneously kicks off its 1996-97 season and inaugurates its elegant new home at the Biltmore Hotel. Every chair in the comfortable 154-seat house provides a good view of the stage, and the spacious rows make it possible to find your place without tripping over already-seated audience members or imploring them to stand.

According to Cejas, he mounted Strange Snow eight years ago when he was artistic director of ACME Acting Company, with Baldwin and De Leo in the same roles. That short run was really "a long dress rehearsal," he noted recently. "We looked forward to the time when we could get it right." Now they have. Bravo to them for producing an exceptional evening of theater that should not be missed.

Stage Whispers
Two years ago, at the age of 26, Marc Mendelson took his own life, having suffered from bipolar disorder (a condition until recently called manic-depressive illness) since childhood. While he was growing up his mother, local playwright, producer, and actress Carrol Mendelson, wrote a short story about her son's emotional struggles. "Writing 'Imperfect Seed' was a catharsis for me because I was in so much pain watching this child that I loved, who was also in pain," explains Mendelson, who has since created a production company named Marc Productions Inc., in memory of Marc.

After her son died, Mendelson met local playwright and screenwriter Manny Diez through mutual friends. Moved by Mendelson's situation, Diez began collaborating with her on a dramatic version of her short story. At the suggestion of local director Joseph Adler, who saw a draft of Imperfect Seed, Mendelson expanded the focus of the work. The first act now details Mendelson's tale; the second act introduces members of a support group for friends and family of people who committed suicide. "Manny and I conceived of the play as my story," says Mendelson. "Then Joseph suggested opening it up. It's been an amazing collaboration. We deal with what to look for [in friends or relatives who may be suicidal], awareness, what happens to survivors afterward."

This weekend Mendelson will see her work presented on-stage at the Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center. Imperfect Seed runs for two performances (October 12 and 13) to benefit the American Suicide Foundation-University of Miami Lifesavers "Teen Screen" Program. The pilot program is currently being implemented in select schools to screen teenagers for mood disorders, abnormal anxiety, alcohol or other substance abuse, and other health problems, in an effort to prevent these problems from leading to suicide.

Mendelson is grateful for the outlet of her writing, her stage work, and her affiliation with the American Suicide Foundation. "Participating in both the theater and the foundation has helped me come to terms with Marc's death and to try to find an answer to an otherwise horrific situation. Part of the answer for me has been helping other people understand this problem."

For information on the show, see "Calendar Listings."

Strange Snow.
Written by Stephen Metcalfe; directed by Juan F. Cejas; with Barbara Sloan, James Baldwin, and Peter Paul De Leo. Through October 20. For information call 445-1119 or see "Calendar Listings.

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