New Theatre's Winter: Abandonment with humor
Making its world premiere at New Theatre, Winter is about how we remember the ones we love but more often forget them while we're buried in the minutiae of our lives. Thanks to a witty script and a charming and talented cast, the play is altogether engaging. It's an affecting and hilarious look at the scars of abandonment as told by fraternal twins so wrapped up in their own lives that neglect is second nature.
Robert Caisley wrote it. He is head of the dramatic writing program, as well as an associate professor of theater and film, at the University of Idaho. The 43-year-old, Rotherham, England-born playwright is also a recipient of a fellowship to the Sundance Playwrights Laboratory and a creative consultant for the History Channel. His plays tend to be more comedic than sobering. Kissing, which premiered at New Theatre in 2009, was a strait-laced romantic comedy. His other works, including The Lake, Good Clean Fun, Front, and Happy, which is a semifinalist for the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference (and will be performed by New Theatre later this year), are all in the same comic vein. But for Winter, Caisley actively set out to write a play that begins as a comedy but then devolves into something else entirely.
"I like when plays take a shift in tone suddenly," Caisley says, "and I wanted to write something that was a departure from other things written before."
Winter tells the story of Peter (Scott Douglas Wilson) and Christina (Annemaria Rajala) Winter, fraternal twins whose demanding lives are interrupted when their mother dies. The two are charged with the bothersome task of arranging her funeral and deciding what to do with the ashes. And it's at the family estate in London the day of the ceremony when they first meet Sophie (Nicole Quintana), their mother's mysterious, young live-in assistant for the past six years.
The didactic Peter has a new fiancée and loves to remind people of the book he's been meaning to write. Christina is a hard-shelled businesswoman whose demanding career has her selling pharmaceutical products and flying around the world to places like Barcelona. Their relationship is the classic sibling rivalry, laced with endless bickering and talking down to one another.
Christina derides Peter's apparent pseudo-intellectualism and mocks his unwritten book. Peter refers to her cardiologist husband as dreary while accusing him of having a God complex. The constant backbiting is both painful and uproarious. It's through these comical, self-centered quarrels that we see Peter and Christina's egoism. There is a palpable undercurrent throughout Winter, especially as the two begin to unravel secrets about their deceased mother.
Neglect is the central theme here. The twins are so extraordinarily self-absorbed they've forgotten about their mother — as much in death as in life. "When someone dies," Peter prophetically and futilely proclaims to the audience before setting off to London for the funeral, "rise above your own pettiness."
The concept of neglect is cogent throughout Caisley's script, and one drawn from personal experiences.
"A friend of mine and her brother had a longstanding disagreement about what should happen to their father's ashes," Caisley says. "Their father died years ago, and it wasn't until very recently that they scattered his ashes. I thought it was odd that people would have such a strange argument over a pot full of carbon. Somehow it symbolized something they're willing to fight about, even after this person's death, and I'm wondering how involved they were in his interests while he was alive."
And that's the twins' plight in Winter. Their lack of self-awareness is revealed through the enigmatic Sophie, who seems to have had more than a working relationship with their mother.
Says Caisley: "My own mother has always had a great fear of what is going to happen to her when she gets older, when my father dies. That natural fear is something that she has talked about for years. Not just recently, but when I was very young, she would talk about her fear of being alone. So I wanted to write about under what circumstances would children sort of disown their parents."
As they sift through their mother's recent furtive history, Peter and Christina begin to understand why they are the way they are. And the picture isn't pretty.
Winter is a quality production for New Theatre, thanks mainly to Caisley's darkly humorous script and a solid cast. Wilson gives a lucid and robust performance as Peter. His comedic timing is brilliant, deftly displaying a man immersed in intellectual bluster who's further handicapped by his high-maintenance fiancée, his demanding mother-in-law, and his sister's heavy-handed personality. Rajala holds her own as a cold and calculating Christina, while Quintana gives a moving and restrained turn as Sophie. New Theatre veteran Barbara Sloan's portrayal of the spirit of Mother Winter is both vulnerable and droll. It's a bit part, but Sloan's understated performance is vital.
The action is contained to Mother Winter's living room, a simple and discreet set designed by Nicole Quintana. A couch, flanked by a set of French doors that lead to the estate's garden and birdbath, sits in front of a small coffee table where Mother Winter's ashes lie in a flask. The flask eventually becomes a sort of MacGuffin. It could easily be a distraction — particularly during the scene where Peter, Christina, and Sophie scuffle over the flask — but director Ricky J. Martinez's use of soft lighting and proper blocking keep things centered and focused.
At roughly 90 minutes without intermission, the play at times drags (there is a sort of unspoken sexual tension between two of the characters that seems unnecessary to the plot). But overall, New Theatre has struck a positive chord. The company's new digs at the Roxy Performing Arts Center, a converted movie theater across the street from the Florida International University South Campus, works thanks to its ample space and lighting.
Winter's subtle shifts in tone between funny and tragic paint an emotive picture of abandonment and regret. Sometimes a play is a comedy, until it's no longer a comedy. This is a precarious line that the writers and actors succeed in following for this production.
"While the siblings in the play act in sort of terrible ways to one another, it's my hope that by the end of it, the audience will understand why they became the adults that they became," Caisley says when asked what he hopes audiences take away from Winter. "And I hope that they pick up the phone and call their parents."
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