Mary-Louise Parker actually seems to be fluttering her way through The Snow Geese, the new Sharr White play that premiered Oct. 24 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
As well she should. They're birds of a feather. A frail flower in widow's weeds elegantly designed by Jane Greenwood and living in an upstate old money hunting lodge handsomely rendered by John Lee Beatty, she is a beautiful sacrifice to the turbulent World War I times. To ease her through her eight-week-old depression over her husband's death, her smitten brother-in-law — the doctor in the house — treats her to tea, sympathy and laudanum, a then-popular tincture of opium.
This keeps her racing from the dinner table in tears, unheard in shouting matches and oblivious to her sky-is-falling finances. While the world undergoes a major upheaval, she is a barely visible thin-reed at the center of a building social storm that will cast her adrift like the lost souls in a Chekhov play. In terms of meeting the winds of change head-on and going with the flow, this is not exactly Scarlett O'Hara.
Put another way, she is Mother Snow Goose. There really are snow geese, according to playwright White: Arctic birds that migrate north every year in large flocks to partake of that bracing cold and are greeted with hot lead from sportsmen, disappearing en masse. It's an apt metaphor for what awaits the humans in this play.
To hear Parker tell it, the hardest part of this role to act was hostess to any kind of hunting party: "I'm so averse to hunting, in every possible way. If you're hunting to feed your family and that's your only way, there's something heroic about it. But hunting for sport? I can't connect to that at all, except it has become such a ritual to this particular family — everything surrounding it — and she is connected to ritual."
Director Daniel Sullivan said he was drawn to the piece by the writing: "Sharr is an American playwright who is interested in the American past and likes to draw direct lines from our past to our present — not in obvious ways, either. Here, he looks at a family defined by money — that sort of misshapen American idea that money defines you, and he was able to take that idea to this outpost-y world of Syracuse in 1917."
The Parker he directs here is radically different from the one he directed to a Tony for Proof (his Tony-winning vehicle as well). "It was a great joy to work with her before, and we picked up where we left off," the director relayed. "I love her instincts. I depend upon them as a director. One of the things that has happened to Mary-Louise since I last worked with her is that she has become a mother. That side of her I thought would be fascinating to explore. I find the most moving sections in the play for me are the scenes where she is dealing with her children. You can see the good mother there who hasn't been able to function that way for quite a while."
One such scene, which she played with some suddenly found strength, occurs at the end when she sees No. 1 son off to World War I, assuring him everything will be all right. Given her history of delusion, opium-induced or otherwise, this seems tantamount to a kiss of death. "You never know, you never know," countered Sullivan. "What she's trying to provide him with is well-founded hope when she talks about him as someone who can walk through hailstorms and never be touched. There's every possibility that he'll make it through, but you know what her fears are because she details the number of people who have died in the various conflicts."
Indeed, The Snow Geese is all aquiver with characters who have terrible backstories and absolutely no compunction about sharing them with the audience. "That part of the play is very Chekhovian," the director pointed out. "Chekhov's characters are always more than ready to tell you their complaints about life and what has happened to them. They all have their stories that define them in some way."
Even the sunniest person on the premises (relatively speaking) — Parker's excessively Methodist sister, played by Victoria Clark — has moved herself out of a personal tragedy. A decade back, her daughter died, and she now wears dark plum instead of black, which comprises Parker's entire wardrobe (save for one hallucination scene).
"Victoria," the director beamed, "is someone who'll surprise you on a nightly basis, as most of these actors will. If you see the show twice, you'll never see the same performance. She works very much in the moment, which is somewhat unexpected since she's so associated with musical theatre. In the musical performances of hers I've seen, I've always thought, 'Man, there is a real actor in her.' When she did Juno over in Encores!, I thought, 'She doesn't need that music. She can play it straight.'"
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