Monday, February 15, 2010

The Fine Art of Peeling Onions

The Fine Art of Peeling Onions

By Tom Wachunas

Mary McManaway, the artistic director of North Canton Playhouse, clearly had a heart for “Strange Snow,” a play by Steve Metcalfe that premiered in 1982 at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It went on to become the motion picture, “Jackknife,” starring Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris. When McManaway chose to stage it as a Director’s Special production for her black-box studio theater, she also knew who would be playing the three characters – a daunting task, given the material’s depth and intensity. As it turns out, the cast here serves up a delicious evening of poignant, memorable drama, spiced with a generous, albeit bittersweet dose of comedy.

The action takes place during the late 1970s, in the house co-habited by Martha Flannagan, a spinster school teacher, and her sullen, alcoholic brother, David, and unfolds in the context of an explosive reunion between David and his estranged friend, Megs. Both served together in Vietnam, along with their mutually cherished friend, Bobby, who was killed in action. The irrepressibly energetic Megs shows up at the house at 5a.m. to take David on a fishing trip, prompting the flummoxed, golf club-wielding Martha to think a burglar is breaking in. And indeed, as the play progresses, Megs succeeds in stealing Martha’s very lonely heart. Meanwhile the darker, underlying secrets and layers of the relationships between Megs and David, and David and Martha, are relentlessly peeled away in painfully frank, tearful confessions of shattered dreams, blame, and denial. The play’s romantic comedy comes amid tense counterpoint to its riveting drama about exorcising the ghosts of guilt, anger, and mourning.

Directorially, McManaway has clearly elicited from her actors an inspired chemistry of facile timing and emotional authenticity. While each actor turns in a very credible reading of a struggling individual, the ensemble is an utterly real unit trudging the same road to redemptive healing.

As Martha, Marci Lynn Saling is endearing and downright funny in her portrait of the shy, skittish teacher who seems so easily startled by her own observations. While Saling skillfully plays her character’s growing romantic infatuation with giggly girlishness, she effortlessly swings into very adult moments of anguish, resentment, and self-doubt.

Ted Paynter, in the role of Megs, delivers a thoroughly masterful picture of the infectious optimist, awkward suitor, and wartime buddy desperately seeking understanding and reconnection. That reconnection comes only after a startling, ferocious tangling with David, played by Mike Noble. In his role of the surly, selfish, often cruel drunk, Noble is disarmingly naturalistic, and certainly magnetic as he struggles to find his own capacity to be tender.

Metcalfe’s play imparts a few informative tidbits about his characters’ histories that are, at times, maddeningly vague and left dangling. Some might think it an untidy oversight. But such flaws are really short-lived here, and don’t diminish our overall grasp of the circumstances that have so deeply scarred his characters. And when the writing is as well played out as it is here, we are nonetheless inexorably caught up in their torturous journeys toward resolution.

What has settled most impressively in my memory, then, goes well beyond specifics of the story’s content, which is just engaging enough in its own right. The real power of this play is in its actual performance. So consider it as a gift. As audience we are immersed in a marvelous generosity. Here, we witness remarkable artists pouring themselves into their characters, infusing them with genuine sincerity as they reveal the grittier realities of human catharsis.

Photo (courtesy North Canton Playhouse): Marci Lynn Saling and Mike Noble in a scene from “Strange Snow,” currently playing in the McManaway Studio theatre, at the North Canton Playhouse (inside Hoover High School), 525 7th Street NE, North Canton, THROUGH FEBRUARY 27th. Friday and Saturday, 8p.m. / Sunday 2:30p.m.
Tickets: $12.00 adults, $11.00 seniors and students.
Call (330) 494 – 1613 for reservations, or order online at

No comments: