Mr. Bainbridge collected eccentrics, but with his death, things have gotten quiet around his family house in the Berkshires. The giddy flow of artists, thinkers, and unusual characters has ended. But the household, Stonegate, still has its idiosyncrasies — charming ones — which it takes an outsider to notice. The outsider in Joan Ackermann’s Ice Glen is a fancy Boston editor hell-bent on publishing a Stonegate resident’s poetry. The resident is equally hell-bent on keeping her work to herself. As a result, four other people find their world changing unexpectedly in this bright, snug historical comedy about how clueless people can be about one another’s motivations.
While the obvious conflict here is between nature and civilization, what’s also interesting in Ice Glen is that women are the engines of the story. It’s not a battle of the sexes per se, but it is the fears and desires of the women that get examined, negotiated, and addressed. This makes for complex (and doubtless fun to play) female characters — Bainbridge’s widow, Dulce; the poet, Sarah Harding; and the housekeeper, Mrs. Roswell. The men also are well drawn and well played, full of their own surprises, but women make things happen here.
Although she never makes an appearance, Edith Wharton gets things rolling by sending Sarah’s poems to Atlantic Monthly editor Peter Woodburn. When Peter visits Stonegate thinking that he’s about to make Sarah’s day by paying her fifteen bucks a pop to publish them (the play is set in 1919), he finds that she has strong and unexpected feelings on the matter, and that virtually every tack he takes to convince her is going to be the wrong one — if, that is, he can get her to come inside from playing with bears long enough to make his offer.
As Dulce Bainbridge, Lauren Grace plays the genteel, prissy foil to Sarah’s wild woman of the woods. It’s a clash rooted in the classic femme versus tomboy dynamic, where the tomboy represents honesty, freshness, and a certain amount of desirable masculinity. (Notice that Peter says of her work, “There’s such a bold force in her poems, one could believe they were penned by a man.”) And while it looks as if we’re supposed to feel allegiance to Sarah over Dulce, there’s a beautiful confrontation between Dulce and Peter where she drops a carefully modulated burst of truth and emotion that would make the Olympics judges scramble for their scorecards. It’s so nice to see a hyperfemme woman represented as toughly competent in her own way, and a captivating turn from Grace.
Zehra Berkman is thorny yet vulnerable as Sarah, a woman who’s happiest out in the muck and leaf-mold. Watching her shut down the go-go Peter at every turn is fascinating. Jessica Powell is really wonderful as Mrs. Roswell, rangy and gossipy and plain-spoken. Ackermann’s expository device of having her talk to herself could be irritating if it weren’t Powell in the role, but somehow she just gets more likable as the play progresses, even when she’s explaining how to prepare a turtle for making soup.
The men fare just as well, especially Julian López-Morillas, who makes a understated appearance as Grayson. Usually, López-Morillas plays big at the Aurora, especially in the recent Marius and Partition a few years back. Here he shows he can scale it back without losing any impact. He has a little whimper in the second act that does more than a soliloquy in a lesser actor’s hands.
Meanwhile, Marvin Greene has a challenge as Peter: namely, places in which the script feels as if it’s about to become the sort of bodice-ripper where a man has to win over a wild woman. All of those moments are his. But he balances big-city slickness with a single-mindedness that makes him foolish and human and real.
Showing the interface between inside and out in a space as small and restricted as the Aurora is tough, and the designers get a lot spatially from a little. John Iacovelli’s set nicely captures the tension between the civilized indoors and the wild outdoors. Characters bring the furniture on and off into pools of Jim Cave’s lighting in front of a wild background of marshy-looking plants, the talk of rocky wild places filling in the mental picture.
Ice Glen captures the past without getting overly sentimental or unrealistic — at least until the end, which is a little on the neat and tidy side. As Aurora dramaturg Daniel Olmstead explains in his program notes, this was the period after the First World War in which people took poetry seriously and modernism, a reaction against staid older forms, flourished in the hands of the likes of Frost, cummings, and Stein. Ackermann exploits tensions drawn from both the period itself (the wild versus the rise of the industrial, the birth of a new kind of poetry) and larger, more timeless conflicts (solitude versus exposure, the need to be loved). The result buzzes and snaps, especially with the great actors director Barbara Oliver uses here.