by Gail M. Burns, June, 2005.
In years to come, when someone asks me about The Ice Glen, I think that I will tell them that I saw it on a crisp fall day, when the scenery outside of the Spring Lawn mansion was ablaze with color and the geese could be heard overhead as they flew south for the winter.
I will say this and I will believe this, but it will not be true. I saw The Ice Glen on the most brutally hot and humid day imaginable, a mere week before the summer solstice. The theatre at Spring Lawn is not air conditioned.
But the play is set in the months of October, November, and December of 1920, and thanks to the resolute work of the actors (how did they manage to neither visibly sweat nor simply pass out in that winter clothing?) and the mood set by playwright Joan Ackermann and director Tina Packer, both Berkshire residents with a deep understanding of our seasons, I was completely taken in. When I think of this play I will always hear the crackle of leaves underfoot and the crunch as actress Kristin Wold bit into an apple. This play is the epitome of autumn in the Berkshires.
Ackermann was inspired to write this play while in the Spring Lawn mansion, and she is thrilled that this, its third staging, is taking place in the building that gave it birth. While sitting in the parlor, presumably the room in which the play is currently staged, she met her characters as they burst in through the French doors in the opening scene. This scene is really the only one which contains specific action. Ackermann is a writer of character and voice, not one of action. The play unfolds through the voices of each of the six main characters, two of whom are upper class with the remaining four being servants.
What happens in The Ice Glen is that Peter Woodburn (Michael Hammond), the publisher of the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly magazine, arrives at Stonegate, a gilded age Berkshire mansion in decline, as indeed the gilded age is on the wane after the First World War and the institution of federal income tax in 1913, in search of Sarah Harding (Kristin Wold) the author of some very extraordinary poems sent to him by EdithWharton. Stonegate is owned the widow Dulce Bainbridge (Elizabeth Aspenleider), who feels very keenly the loss of her gregarious husband Samuel and of their fortune. The staff, once large, now consists of Grayson, the butler (Dennis Krausnick), Mrs. Roswell, the cook and housekeeper (Gillian Seidl), Sarah Harding, who acts as gardener, and Denby (Brian Weaver), a young man best described by the gentle and archaic word “simpleton,” who serves as a jack of al trades about the estate.
Woodburn wishes to publish Sarah’s poems and Sarah feels that they are deeply private and personal. When she learns that Woodburn has committed three of her verses to memory, she accuses him of stealing. He can give her back the hard copies, but she can never recover what he holds in his mind. Their struggle and Woodburn’s intense reaction to the landscape that Sarah tends and writes about so intimately, precipitates major and necessary changes in these six lives that have been essentially on hold since Samuel Bainbridge’s death.
This is a highly romantic vision of a gilded age household, and of the Berkshires. Ackermann has stated that she considers Shakespeare & Company to be engaged in a romantic endeavor in a romantic setting, and this play she has crafted for them confirms that statement. I was often reminded of the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) and especially of her masterpiece The Secret Garden which also melds the power of the natural world with a tale of necessary change in a stagnated Victorian household. There are times when Ackermann’s characters, like some of Burnett’s, are too good to be true.
This is very much the case of the character of Mrs. Roswell. I do not doubt that Ackermann wrote the role for Seidl, her partner in their Great Barrington-based theatre group Mixed Company, who is the very picture of matronly comfort with her long gray hair and rosy cheeks. And she does an admirable job with the part, but the character desperately needs some rough edges to make her a real person instead of a stock character.
The other two servant characters, Grayson and Denby, also suffer from this problem, but Ackermann and Packer have managed to give them both a little more depth and background so that you understand why they are who they are. There is nothing wrong with writing about good people, but every believable character needs to live in a three-dimensional world.
Krausnick embues Grayson with as much paternal warmth as Seidl brings the maternal to Mrs. Roswell. If you can buy the butler as all-wise and all-knowing, then you will be charmed by Krausnick’s performance. If anyone can make this character plausible, it is him.
Weaver makes the childlike Denby very likeable and sympathetic. I used the word “simpleton” earlier to describe this character, because his mental deficiencies, whatever they may be, render the world a fairly simple place for this gentle soul. Weaver successfully diffuses the light in his eyes, and moves in a semi-mechanical manner as he takes Denby through his daily chores and adventures. The parallel between Denby and Dickon in The Secret Garden is particularly strong, although the latter’s simplicity comes from his rustic upbringing rather than from any lack of mental capacity. Both characters have strong bonds with animals and nature, and both act as confidants and catalysts for the central female character in the story.
Where Ackermann’s story fails and Burnett’s succeeds is in that central female character. Sarah Harding, the most complex and three-dimensional person in The Ice Glen is also the most poorly drawn. It is as if Ackermann can craft accurate and winning caricatures with bold pen and ink strokes, but when she tries to add color, depth, and detail, the picture becomes more and more blurred and the details less clearly defined. I never really understood how Sarah came to be at Stonegate and what her relationships were with Samuel and Dulce Bainbridge, what had happened in her “normal” life as a married woman in Chicago that had caused her to retreat into herself and the countryside, and why she was so adamant about not having her poems published. In fact, I was never entirely convinced that she was the author of the poems – I felt that Ackermann kept leaving me clues that they might be the work of Samuel Bainbridge or Sarah’s former husband.
And I certainly didn’t understand the bear. Is there a really a bear? If so, what is Sarah’s relationship with it and why is it important to the story? Maybe I am very dense, but something as large and powerful as a bear either is or it isn’t. You can’t have a sort-of-a-bear.
Wold is all fire and defiance as Sarah, but to me the character was not well defined enough to be sympathetic.
Aspenleider is beautiful and charming as the widow Bainbridge. Her character’s transition from despair and isolation to new life and purpose was the play’s most appealing. I loved the way Ackermann used language to empower Dulce, and I cheered for Aspenleider as she took the bit in her teeth and wielded her words to take back her dignity and her self from the various men who had owned it or attempted to co-opt it for all these years.
Peter Woodburn is another of Ackermann’s more successful attempts at a three-dimensional character, and Hammond makes him frustratingly human. This man has no social graces whatsoever, but because of who he is and the omnipotence ascribed to successful white males in that time period, people make allowances for him – all except for Sarah. The only part of Woodburn’s character that I did not accept was his supposed love for Sarah. Either Ackermann didn’t write it properly or Hammond and Wold didn’t play it properly, but I never believed that Woodburn cared deeply for Sarah as a person and a woman – as a poet and a gardener, yes, but not in a romantic sense.
I loved the detail of the scene changes, performed by the servants as if they were setting up, dismantling, or tending to the household. The change in which Grayson and Denby set a formal dinner table is magical and educational. I loved the use of the marker sticks to place the silverware correctly. My father, who always set a beautiful table, would have been pleased.
In looking closely at this play and these characters that Ackermann so obviously loves and labored over, I am giving you a “can’t see the forest for the trees” impression of the production as a whole. Each tree has its idiosyncrasies, but the forest is lovely. The overall experience, as I tried to say at the outset when I wrote about the magical sense of season and place achieved, is one of profound artistry. The second act felt a tad too long, but that could well have been a product of the heat of the day. I definitely noticed a languor in the audience I attended with that allowed many very amusing or poignant lines to pass without a titter or a murmur. I vote that Shakespeare & Company remount this show in the autumn, when they will not needed recorded goose calls or imported dead leaves and the audience will be wide awake and invigorated by the cool air and beautiful colors that Ackermann brings so stirringly to life.
The Ice Glen runs in repertory through September 4 at the Spring Lawn Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. While it is beauifully constructed and acted, the slow pace and diffuse action will make this tough going for children under 14. Packer compares Ackermann’s writing to that of Anton Chekhov and I agree. If you think your child would be bored at a Chekhov play, don’t take them to see The Ice Glen. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
P.S. On July 13, 2005 the sale of the Spring Lawn mansion was announced. The 2005 season will be your last chance to see performances in this charming space – and to see the space itself since its future will see it turned into luxury condominiums most of us can’t afford. Do go!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005