Monday, July 13, 2009

Ice Glen: A Play about Poetry

(reflections on the play ICE GLEN by Joan Ackermann, directed by Ellen McQueen for the Essential Theatre Play Festival at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta.)

By the end of act two, I was glad that I'd stayed. Characters from the play have stayed with me, too, in the days since I saw the show.

The synopsis tells us that the story concerns a reclusive poet who refuses to let an intrusive publisher print three of her poems in his magazine. Already, we're thinking of reclusive Emily Dickinson and Henry James of THE ASPERN PAPERS. I'm afraid that, by the end of act one, the story did not seem to have developed far beyond its original premise. We do meet other characters, because the recluse lives in a large New England home with a charming widow, whose late husband was evidently very generous about adopting guests. There's Denby, a "slow" but endearing boy - man of indeterminate age. There are two servants, wise and wise - cracking in a way that's familiar to us from old plays and ARTHUR. It was all well done.

But it all seemed as if the characters were just filling the time that passed between confrontations of poet and publisher, and those all rehashed the same material: You can't have my poems, you arrogant man. To tell the truth, I was annoyed at the poet, who asserted a lot without using her supposed gifts to express what the poems mean, or what words mean, or what publication would mean.

Act Two benefits from the choices made by the widow, whose desire to be desired by the visiting publisher provided comic moments of social misunderstandings in act one. A confrontation between her and the publisher is the prize scene of the play, and earned applause when I saw the show. The poet gets to let loose in a sort of fantasy game played with Denby. By the end of that act, the audience was feeling warmly towards the characters, and satisfied with the movement in the script -- the melting of the emotional ice that encased act one.

The playwright has thoughtfully strung images together as motifs that relate to the all - important poems that we never hear. There's the shadowy bear whose claw marks we see on the poet's face at the start of the play, but whose existence may be imagined or metaphorical. He's tied in with the shadowy late master of the house. Many references to coldness and ice that lasts even in summer (in the ice glen) relate to the publisher's icy insensitivity.

The production that I saw was peopled by very personable actors who made their characters appealing -- though it was hard to like the poet and publisher until late in the second act. Overhearing conversation in the parking lot, I found that I wasn't the only person to wonder at at accents. Denby seems East European in his look and accent; Mrs. Roswell the maid is Scottish or Irish; Mrs. Bainbridge speaks cultivated New England; Grayson the Butler sounds British. The poet Sarah Harding sounded American with a little bit of drawl.

Then there were anachronisms. The clothing seemed Edwardian, but the dialogue refers reverently to Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, and their high reputations date from the mid-20s at the earliest. By that same time, Emily Dickinson's poetry had at last been discovered after some thirty years in print. So why isn't the obvious connection made?

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