In Strawberry Theater Workshop‘s production of The Bells (through February 18; tickets), Theresa Rebeck takes us to a late-19th-century Alaskan hamlet withering away on what little booze and memories remain from the Gold Rush. It’s a place of impenetrable darkness and unbearable cold where a young woman has few options in life. This is bad news for Mathias (Peter Crook) and his daughter Annette (Brenda Joyner), who form the center of a cast of characters made desperate by yearning for warmth, companionship, and gold.
The play begins with one of many lyrical monologues sprinkled liberally through the hour-fifty running time. This one is delivered by a mysterious Chinese prospector play by Jose Abaoag who is a little monotonous, even for a character in his condition. The speech is wiped away by the entrance of three drunks who come brawling on like the clowns of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with some weak stage combat and awkward blocking.
The trio is led by Charlie (John Q. Smith), who takes a substantial share in the lyrical monologue department and achieves the strongest balance between in the poetic and prosaic of any in the cast. Smith proves an engaging raconteur with a touch of Howlin’ Wolf growl. His second is Jim (Galen Joseph Osier), whom Rebeck holds in reserve until after intermission when he bursts forth in an astonishingly beautiful singing voice and takes hold of the stage. These two are assisted in the carousing by Sally, who offers a dark vision of just how much is at stake for Annette and Mathias. Lisa Viertel plays this underwritten and ambiguous part competently but she or Rebeck might have made more of the role.
While Rebeck’s script is a reworking of a 19th-century play (she holds a PhD in Victorian melodrama) it’s not exactly The Perils of Pauline. Nonetheless, neither plot nor characters are complex or surprising. Annette is the hard-bitten, responsible daughter looking after her dreamy, big-hearted father who only wants to see her relieved of her loneliness. No sooner has this wish been uttered when in walks the stranger—an educated foreigner with a romantic accent, fleeing demons and chasing his quarry. He’s Sgt. Preston with a Quebecois accent—and Patrick Allcorn does well by both character and dialect, which is consistent and only a touch too Parisian.
Peter Crook, as the central figure of Mathias, fills his stage time with detailed choices and a strong commitment to character but loses the audience when he fights against the lyricism of the monologues. Brenda Joyner is a pleasant if uninspiring Annette, whose finest moments come as an understated younger version of the character in a series of flashbacks.
Reed Nakayama’s lighting is unobtrusive and pulls off a very effective aurora borealis. I could quibble about consistent and effective choices with the lantern on the blackouts but that seemed like a cuing problem rather than a design choice (or lack thereof). Evan Mosher’s sound design is excellent with a great sense of space and just a couple minor questionable choices in the pre-show music. Perhaps the ukulele number is there for the Capitol Hill-sters who made up half the audience at the performance I attended.
Anastasia Armes’ costumes capture period and character without jarring anachronism. However, for all the talk of cold, it is inconsistently evident in the costumes and both cold and darkness are rarely present in the acting.
Montana Tippett’s sets seem a bit amateurish at first but prove clever and effective, integrated into a pattern of structure outperforming surfaces that is prominent in the acting, and the text of this show. Snow drifts over a character simply and effectively by a sheet draped across his body, but the snow becomes just a sheet when an actor draws back the cover to brush the snow away. A hokey-looking snowcapped mountain range dominates the set throughout the show but when light reveals that it is made of draped gauze it suddenly takes on magical qualities.
I hope Tippett will let us see more of the structure in future designs and trust us to make the imaginative leap with her. Rebeck deserves the same criticism; while the play was pleasant and reasonably satisfying it would have been more so had it ended one scene sooner. Those who hadn’t unraveled Rebeck’s mystery by intermission knew the story long before curtain call. Ultimately The Bells provides warmth, friendliness, and familiarity, but denies us the excitement of any uncertainty.