The Snow Geese - Theatre Review

by Joshua Kahn

These days, it's not too surprising that theatre companies everywhere are champing at the bit to present politically relevant works, and the Independent Shakespeare Company is no exception. But here they've taken the action to the midst of World War I in their exquisite new production of Sharr White's The Snow Geese.

The tone, characters, and setting are all very Chekhovian-gun and all-but whereas a lesser theatre company would use that as an excuse to bloviate and posture, thinking that a period piece requires dated performances, director David Melville deftly finds the humor and humanity in Mr. White's wonderful, dense script. Skillfully guiding his actors across the sparsely decorated stage, all of whom perform with the grace and precision seemingly inherent to high-quality Shakespearean actors.

In rural New York in 1917, the Gaesling family reunites for a final shooting party before sending their oldest son, Duncan, overseas to fight in The Great War. But, this being a drama steeped heavily in the roots and tactics of early Twentieth Century theatre, all members of the clan harbor secrets of their own, from grieving matriarch Elizabeth (an incendiary Melissa Chalsma) to Ukrainian refugee-turned-housemaid Viktorya (the sensitive Kalean Ung). As this long day journeys into night, secrets come out, relationships are tested, and lives are forever changed.

While this all may make this sound like a stuffy drama, I assure you it's anything but. Having made its Broadway debut in 2012 (and its west coast premiere here at the Studio Theatre at ATX in Atwater Village), the play is very contemporary and relatable as long as you're willing to engage with it.

In fact, it's abundantly clear why the Independent Shakespeare Company has chosen to stage this production now. Mr. White has noted that, in doing his research for the play, he was shocked by how much national attitudes have stayed the same. Though it's been 100 years since the play's setting, we have German immigrant Max Hohmann, played with impressive gentleness and humility by Bruce Katzman, serving as an embodiment for America's eternal fear of "the other." His brutal tales of home-grown anti-German sentiment rightfully elicit knowing and sympathetic grunts from the audience. Often, characters will read the number of casualties in the paper, betraying a sense of unease and impending doom that audience members would be forgiven for feeling in their everyday lives. Mr. White wisely resists the urge to prescribe a cure for these feelings, instead asking us to draw wisdom and strength from his rich, lush characters. Specifically, those of the two brothers.

Older brother Duncan (headstrong, naïve and prideful) and younger brother Arnold (too smart for his own good, stifled and frustrated) represent a youthful hope for the future. It's a classic sibling rivalry dynamic that, when embodied here by such powerful actors as Evan Lewis Smith and Nikhil Pai, overcomes any familiarity an audience may feel. As the emotional poles for much of the story, they do a terrific job in humanizing and intensifying Mr. White's dialogue. Frankly, the entire cast is stellar, from the hilarious Bernadette Sullivan as the boys' pious aunt, to the woefully underused Faqir Hassan as the recently deceased family patriarch.

With handsome costumes by Ruoxuan Li and an evocative, sparse set design (that makes good use of a stage that feels somehow both cramped and overly-wide), it's a treat for the eyes and ears. Though this journey may take a bit too long to wind down to its ultimate conclusion, it's a journey well worth taking.

The Snow Geese is running at the Independent Shakespeare Company thru April 9.

Posted By Joshua Kahn on March 28, 2017 11:05 am | Permalink