Melting Ice

Florida Stage's World War I-era romance suffers from a bland, drippy sensibility

Several questions are raised in Florida Stage's Ice Glen, but not ones the theater likely intends. The first is why this underrealized world premiere was pushed into production before its time. Veteran playwright Joan Ackermann's work offers poetic sensibilities, but it trickles its watery way to a tepid conclusion, and while its course is pleasant, it's not dramatically compelling. The second puzzler is why Florida Stage, known for its superior productions, has delivered such a wan effort, so half-hearted that it looks as if the creative team lost confidence midway through rehearsal.

Ice Glen'schief asset is its dreamy atmosphere, infused with poetry and a mystic sense of the natural world. Its story is set in the autumn of 1918 at a shambling estate in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. This is the era of the arts-and-crafts movement, that wistful aesthetic begun in England by poet/designer William Morris and the pre-Raphaelite painters. The movement sought to shrug off the relentless advance of cookie-cutter industrialism in the hopes of returning to traditional values drawn from philosophy, art, and the simple life. If this still doesn't ring a bell, think Pottery Barn; that self-consciously muted style is directly borrowed from arts-and-crafts originals. Ice Glenechoes that elegant simplicity in a wide range of picturesque scenes -- parlor, kitchen, workshop, forest, dining room -- courtesy of a revolving turntable and a hard-working crew that's the true star of this show. There's a good deal more action off-stage than on.

The story has decided Chekhovian echoes. Two years after the death of her prominent husband, lonely Dulce Bainbridge has yet to break free of mourning. Though she maintains appearances -- immaculately dressed, coiffed, and mannered -- she's crumbling emotionally, much like her house. Her staff must help her carry on. Into this autumnal world comes Peter Woodburn, a magazine editor who's intent on meeting, of all people, Dulce's gardener, Sarah Harding, a nature-loving poetess who pads about barefoot and who, local rumor has it, may be having a romance with a bear in the woods. Sarah's private poems are so striking, Woodburn has come all the way from Boston to convince her to publish them. Sarah is offended that the editor would intrude on her privacy and furious that he somehow, through the intercession of novelist Edith Wharton, has acquired her work without her permission. Rebuffed, the stiff, proper Woodburn leaves but soon returns to pursue Sarah again. In the process, transformed by her poetry, his motives become confused. Does he want to see Sarah for her words or for herself? Meanwhile, Woodburn awakens Dulce's long-dormant emotions and finds himself in a pickle when he impulsively begins a brief affair with her. When Woodburn, embarrassed and befuddled, then avoids Dulce and resumes his quest of Sarah, Dulce's passion quickly turns to pain and anger.

Goranson and Roper: A few flames in a watery landscape
Goranson and Roper: A few flames in a watery landscape

Details

Presented through January 16 by Florida Stage. Call 561 585-3433 (outside Palm Beach County, call 800 514-3837).
262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan

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This could develop into a volatile romantic triangle à la Hedda Gabler,but what ensues instead is a drippy, melancholy character study. It puts a burden on the cast to provide emotional firepower, with mixed results. Stage regulars Elizabeth Dimon and Dan Leonard fare best as a stalwart Irish housekeeper and an Emerson-reading groundskeeper, respectively, both offering welcome character detail and emotional grounding. As Sarah, wild-haired Stacia Rice brings a soulful presence, but her character is mostly stuck in a naysaying rut from start to finish. Brian Goranson conveys the editor's confusion as more repressed than conflicted, and his bearing seems less that of a Boston Brahmin than a modern Midwesterner. As a mentally challenged local lad, Carlo Alban is thoroughly annoying, substituting an endless series of physical tics for detailed character work. Most curious is Alicia Roper's cold/hot performance as Dulce Bainbridge. Roper's work in The Last Schwartz, also at Florida Stage, was a moving portrait of quiet desperation, similar to Dulce. But here, Roper appears constrained for much of the early going only to catch fire in a second-act scene, the best in the play, when the rejected Dulce confronts the startled Woodburn in his Boston office. Furious but refined, Dulce is suddenly transformed into a dynamic and dangerous character that briefly ratchets up Ice Gleninto the drama it could have been.

Some of this instability is understandable -- new plays often take time to develop. What's less acceptable are limp production values that suffer from a serious inattention to period detail. Instead of establishing appropriate regional accents, the cast speaks in standard American speech, as if they were modern arrivistes from Manhattan brokerage jobs. The Boston editor's table manners are informally modern. Wooden boxes have plywood lids. Characters clomp around in modern Vibram lug soles. The wood for the kitchen stove is cut too long to fit into it, and the apples in the kitchen are Red Delicious, the tasteless monstrosity that effectively wiped out the local New England apple industry after World War II and is still reviled there to this day. Though care has been taken with Dulce's several period gowns, the rest of the costume design is a mishmash of modern suits and shoes and generic stock items that would scarcely pass muster at a community theater. All of this must be laid at the feet of director Michael Bigelow Dixon, who seems half-asleep, content to arrange stage pictures and direct traffic; there's little of the dynamic attention he brought to Black Sheepor Mercy of a Storm.

 
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