It's the strangest coincidence: in both these living-room dramas a male character expresses his uncontrollable anger by putting his fist through a window. At face value, this show of passion might be a symptom of an uninventive playwright. Thankfully, these two plays both use simple story structure and standard conventions of drama with intelligence and charm.
In Strange Snow, author Steve Metcalfe serves a meat-and-potatoes tale that is so simple structurally it seems criminal. David, a truck driver and Vietnam vet who drinks too much, lives with his sister Martha, a middle-school teacher on the road to spinsterhood. Into their somewhat unhealthy relationship comes Megs, a good ol' boy mechanic who was in the war with David. Martha is taken by Megs's rustic charm and simple romanticism, but David claims Megs is unpredictable and dangerous. One indication of this is his habit of smashing windows with his fist. As it turns out Megs is a changed man, gentle and sympathetic, who only wishes to make peace with the ghosts of his past. David, on the other hand, cannot seem to face his demons, and as a result lives in the fading glow of his high school glory days. Megs not only delivers David to his redemption as a human being but saves Martha from the fate of remaining an old maid.
It may smack of hokum, but the well-defined characters and strong relationships Metcalfe creates serve as the backbone of the play. When Megs is invited to dinner by Martha, he not only buys a new suit but brings three colors of wine to be on the safe side. Later, a heated argument between David and Martha is relieved by her humorous confession of a disastrous first sexual experience. These human aspects raise the characters above cutouts.
The intimacy of the Cafe Voltaire theater works nicely with the simple scope of the play. Director Frances Swaine's staging is sometimes clunky, with bad sight lines and characters standing out of lighting range, but what her direction lacks in polish it makes up for in charm, as when Megs suddenly realizes that he should use a napkin at the dinner table. Her pacing is steady, and she builds strongly to the play's climax. The actors are obviously inexperienced, but their complete lack of pretension carries them all through the show, especially Michael Bratta, who works hard at giving Megs qualities beyond those of the archetypal hick.
Visionary Theatre Company at Cafe Voltaire
Stan Nevin's Logical Love, enjoying its premiere at Puszh Studios, is another example of a standard dramatic structure used with imagination and skill. Again all the participants in a modified love triangle change for the better. The story concerns a marriage that has hit the rocks because of a lack of communication. Robert is a successful civil engineer whose damnably logical mind sends his unromanced wife Helen up the wall. Into this fragile relationship comes Robert's brother Tony, a romantic loser who professes to be a full-time poet. He confesses to Helen that he has carried a torch for her since her wedding to his brother. In her confusion and frustration, Helen walks out on her husband.
Needless to say, all the tangles in this yarn are neatly undone in the end, with each character a little wiser and more compassionate than before. The great thing is, it's all done with style and intelligence. Instead of taking the easy route and making Helen the most sympathetic character, Nevin allows them all their say. While at the outset Robert seems simply a cold fish, he reveals later to Tony that he wishes he could be the romantic figure Helen longs for. Unfortunately, the only way he knows to express his love is to do little things like fertilizing the lawn and supporting her. Here Nevin uses the fist-through-the- window convention with a touch of poetry. Robert suggests that Tony move in permanently with him and Helen because Tony is more passionate than he is: "When she's away in the day you could break all the windows in the house and then I would fix them, and then you'd break them and I'd fix them."
Tony, instead of being just a wife-stealing bum, is a man who lets an unclear romantic ideal, cleverly exposed in an unfocused poem, cloud his vision of what he really wants from life. Ironically, Helen is the character who is not fully explored. Her need for romance and communication, while believable enough, is not as engaging as the motivations of the two screwed-up men.
Director Paul Gritton has assembled a superior cast. Gregory Radcliff gives Robert a nice sense of forced reason for everything in his life, which is offset by his anger and fear when Helen walks out. As Tony, Michael McKune has an edge of smug disdain and obvious envy for Robert and his respectable life. Maggie MacMillan makes us believe in Helen's love for Robert, which intensifies her problems when she thinks he can't love her back. Rounding out the cast are Gary Simmers and Jennifer Bradley as Robert and Helen's funny friends, who have found a state of balance in their love and in their differences.
Nevin's addition of several original between-scenes torch songs (written by Nevin and sung well by Jennifer Bradley) is the only really unwise choice in this production. They not only break up the flow of the play but are also filled with cliched lyrics like "You're killing me though you hold no knife." What's odd is that Nevin avoids using cliches when working with an old dramatic structure but can't help himself with his songs. Go figure.
Open Door Theatre Company at Puszh Studios