An unlikely couple shares history in A Hint of Winter
In terms of both sensibility and mission, theater director Terry Dodd and the Barth Hotel are made for each other. The Barth, a beautiful nineteenth-century structure, is owned by Senior Housing Options, a charitable organization originally created to provide shelter for the poor and homeless displaced during Denver's 1970s oil boom; today the Barth is home to sixty low-income elderly and disabled people, and SHO owns or operates fifteen more housing communities throughout the state. Dodd is one of the more soulful directors around, an artist deeply attuned to place. Last summer, he produced The Hot L Baltimore in the Barth's lobby as a fundraiser; this summer — for SHO's thirtieth anniversary — he's staging A Hint of Winter, by local playwright Terri Draeger, and bringing two of his Hot L actors back to the Barth.
The setting is perfect, both physically and in the way it adds resonance to one of the play's primary themes: memory and time's passing. A Hint of Winter takes place in the lobby of a London hotel in 1992, where an elderly Englishman and a young woman from California, taking tea at separate tables (or rather, he's drinking tea, and she coffee), begin a conversation. It's lighthearted at first, then clouded by mutual incomprehension, eventually contentious, and finally imbued with understanding and muted warmth. The Young Woman is at a crossroads, facing a morally complex decision; the Old Man reveals a shadowed life of his own, and some soul-deep regrets. We learn of errant fathers, guilt, equivocation and possible redemption.
The opening moments of this eighty-minute piece are vibrant and charming. The woman figures out that when the man says "serviette," he means napkin, and they explore the differences between Englishness and being American. Her calling is historical preservation, and he teases her about it. California has no history, he says; why preserve things "so young as to be in their infancy"? At the point where they're reeling off dueling lists — he reciting the names of the Roman emperors, memorized in boarding school, and she the American presidents — the play has us in its spell. But that's because the two people on stage are interacting and finding out things about each other in present time, as opposed to musing on their families and past moments in alternating monologues.
Unfortunately, as the play progresses, things get static and talky. The characters' narratives are supposed to echo or mirror or amplify each other, but they feel completely separate. You can ferret out parallels and make an intellectual case for them, but the process isn't visceral; you have to work at it. The Old Man served as a spy during World War II, and he eventually describes the less-than-glorious truth of his experience, but there are cloudy places and holes in his story. Given the weight of the history he carries, the Young Woman's dilemma seems somewhat trivial at first, though we gradually find out that there's more to her tale as well. But this almost feels like an add-on, and her whole story doesn't jibe any better than does the Old Man's.
Although the script is lacking, Joey Wishnia is perfect as the Old Man; there's a seasoned, rooted, experienced quality to his performance, along with some humor and a little petulance. Robin Wallace's Young Woman is a less rounded character — both as written and as performed — but she's a fairly appealing one. Overall, there's a gentleness and generosity to the evening that makes it worthwhile (and a worthy fundraiser for SHO, which is badly in need of donations), and I suspect Draeger will give us increasingly interesting and accomplished plays as time goes by.
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