BWW Review: WINTER PEOPLE: Burn It Down
Written by Laura Neill, Directed by Avital Shira; Scenic Design, Kayla Williams; Lighting Design, Mark Fortunato; Sound Design, Aubrey Dube; Costume Design, Chloe Chafetz; Fight Choreographer, Jessica Scout Malone; Dramaturg, Cayenne Douglass; Assistant Dramaturg, Jordyn Stoessel; Stage Manager, Katherine Humbert; Assistant Stage Manager, Jolie Frazer-Madge; Assistant Director, Blair Cadden
Performances through December 16; A BU New Play Initiative Production, produced by Boston Playwrights' Theatre and Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Theatre, at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org
Playwright Laura Neill is an angry person who channels her fiery passion onto the page and, ultimately, onto the stage. In Winter People, her newest work produced by Boston Playwrights' Theatre and Boston University College of Arts School of Theatre, she takes up the mantle for the underserved families who are the year-round residents of the Hamptons, the exclusive Long Island enclave used by the rich and famous as a summer playground. Having grown up in an L.I. summer town herself, Neill knows the territory and endeavors to tell the stories of five communities that represent the island's diversity.
The play begins with a centerpiece, the burning of a huge mansion in the middle of winter, and branches off into five spokes to show the connection each of the five families has to the central event. To help orient the audience, the program includes a quasi-venn diagram listing the family surnames, the characters in the family, and the relationships between members of different families. Five actors play all of the parts, with all but one (who is double-cast) being triple-cast, and everyone playing both male and female roles. The ensemble does an excellent job of differentiating their characters (with an assist to costume designer Chloe Chafetz), but there are a couple of instances when someone's identity and/or gender takes a while to establish.
Neill introduces us to the African-American Brown Family (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), with mother Lynn unable to hide her excitement that daughter Taylor received an endowed scholarship to college (funded by one of the wealthy islanders), and aunt Natasha, who is exploring her possible Native American heritage. Jason Waters (Jaime Carrillo) is a community activist and curator of the Native American museum, and his adolescent daughter Raven stocks shelves at Rite-Aid. The Dickson Family (Kayla Lian) is struggling financially (mother Sue) and facing a teenage pregnancy (daughter Haley), as well as having a cousin (Shaun) with a secret. Latinx are represented by the González Family (Mariana Mondragón), immigrants with an American-born daughter, Claudia. Raúl, the dad, is erroneously charged with starting the fire and may face deportation, and his wife Patricia frets over the existential threat to her family. Claudia tries to get her boyfriend, Luke Abbott (Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos), nephew of one of the town fathers, to advocate for her dad. The other Abbotts are cousin Rob, a volunteer firefighter, and Cat, Taylor's best friend.
Every scene in Winter People is a two-person dialogue which advances the plot of the two people on stage, but we never get to experience a face-to-face conversation between any members of the same family because (like Clark Kent and Superman) they are played by the same actor. Therefore, instead of Sue trying to let Haley know that she supports her choice, we have Sue venting to the librarian; Taylor can't turn to her mother or aunt to express her concerns about paying for college when she loses her scholarship, and can't rely on Cat to appreciate her circumstances; Patricia and Raúl are unable to comfort each other or reassure Claudia, finding little solace from others outside of the family. As a result, when and if issues are resolved, it is up to one of the parties to report it, and it never feels as satisfactory as if we had been able to see it happen.
Director Avital Shira has a real feel for Neill's purpose and, in addition to drawing authentic performances from the cast, works for authenticity with the design team. Scenic designer Kayla Williams evokes the resort community with sand covering half the stage floor, an adjacent boardwalk, and a wall of wooden slats that implies The Remains of a house. Mark Fortunato's lighting design employs lots of red and orange to suggest a fire, and Aubrey Dube provides the sound of flames, sirens, and the nearby ocean. We never see the water, but its presence informs the hopes and dreams of the characters.
Winter People is an ambitious undertaking and Neill is earnest in her mission to tell these important stories, especially in light of an economic climate that seems to heavily favor the well-to-do at the expense of the lower socioeconomic classes. However, this might be a situation of less is more; that none of the stories can be given sufficient focus and attention because of the number of subplots. The lack of opportunity to have face-to-face confrontations within each family seems like an important omission that would add depth and clarity, as well as the possibility of reconciliation and redemption. There is little joy shown here, and that might brighten the darkness of these winter days.
Photo credit: Kalman Zabarsky (Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos)