Serious theatergoers may well want to see Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, which in 1935 won the first New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. Specializing in mining historic gems, Griffin Theatre Company’s production at The Den Theatre gives it the full Monty.
Though Winterset is a period piece, unlike 1930s works like Mother Courage or Waiting for Lefty, the social agenda in Anderson’s work doesn’t supersede the story. In this tragedy, the star-crossed lovers Mio (Maurice Demus) and Miriamne (Kiayla Ryann) suffer the slings and arrows of an ill-fated romance.
The challenge for audiences made up of you and me is the language and structure. Written largely in verse, in three acts with two intermissions, Winterset is work to watch. The performances that director Jonathan Berry draws out carry the story well enough. But the language, especially Act I, is so stylized that I wondered if the playwright were really any good. He wrote the 1954 hit The Bad Seed, and in 1947 Anne of a Thousand Days - both also successful as films.
Winterset is another matter. Impossibly poetic lines are tossed into moments of climactic action. Actors sometimes resorted to continuously declaiming, or soaring away on wings of poetry, in their delivery. That being said, you can totally follow the story of young Mio, who wants to clear the name of his father, unjustifiably executed for a murder. Miriamne learns that her brother Garth (Christopher Acevedo) knows enough to clear Mio’s father. But he is intimidated from doing so when two accessories to the murder arrive: Trock (John Odor conjures up Killer Joe) and Shadow (Bradford Stevens as Trock’s ominous partner).
Norm Woodel in his supporting role as Esdras has the vocal skills to overcome Maxwell’s challenging script, putting cadence, timber, emphasis and whatever else the pros know into delivering lines greatly. And Larry Baldacci as Judge Gaunt also has the seasoning to carry it off. But this is a tough script for today.
The retro industrial set by Joe Schermoly is a standout. Despite the constraints of space, Schermoly has created a properly noir environment with backlit fog (lighting by Alex Ridgers). The stage tilts forward, with huge steam pipes that fit the script and are so convincing I thought they were part of the Milwaukee Avenue loft building that Den calls home. Schermoly’s recent credits include Steppenwolf’s Constellations and Victory Gardens Hand to God – all very different and all very creative.
In its time, Winterset was celebrated for its topicality. Audiences did not miss parallels to efforts to exonerate Sacco & Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants executed for murder in 1927, in a case that resonates with today’s social activist movements. In real life, nearly every major city on the globe saw protests in 1927 in support of the two. That subtext combined with the romantic tragedy was boffo at the box office. Ticket buyers ponied up to keep the retelling the tale in Winterset's 190-performance run on Broadway.
This show is recommended. See Winterset at the Den Theatre through December 23, 2016.