The setting is a functional living space, bare-bones but lovingly furnished with pots of gardenias. There's a large bed in the center. We hear voices — some laughter, a woman complaining, a man soothing, explaining — and a couple emerges through a trap door. It's a bit of a struggle because the man is carrying the woman; we assume they're happy newlyweds and this is their across-the-threshold moment. But when the woman, at last perched safely on the bed, says she has to "wee" and the man efficiently whisks out a bedpan, we realize her legs are paralyzed. Furthermore, they're not in a regular house, but a treehouse constructed by the husband and his friends in what he intended as a loving and romantic gesture. For a woman whose movements are so profoundly constrained that it's hard to get around on solid ground, who's been longing for more comfortable and everyday signs of love like a proper wedding reception and a cake, and who is deeply nervous about her first sexual encounter, it is anything but. To add to her concerns, there's a storm raging outside.
This is the borderline territory between conventional sweetness and inconvenient reality that playwright Scott Hudson walks in his Sweet Storm. The year is 1960, and Ruthie and Boas are very young and intensely naive. The treehouse is on land Boas was bequeathed by an old drunk: He's grateful; Ruthie isn't. The son of an itinerant preacher and a preacher himself, Boas intends to build a house and church in this isolated place. He also believes there's a spring on the property with healing powers.
This 75-minute piece is longtime actor Hudson's first play, and it's an interesting offering. It begins on ground we think we know well — newlyweds getting to know each other — and manages to evade cuteness and explore the theme in a fresh and original way. The couple are indeed as sweet as the title promises, but they're also complicated. Boas is full of preacherly clichés that he fully believes. And he's also a young man who chose a woman he'll be required to tend for the rest of his life, and who loves that woman with all his heart. Ruthie veers between a romanticism worthy of Tennessee Williams and an ungracious querulousness. She loves gardenias because they have "the aroma of angels," she asserts — but asks Boas to please move the pots because that same aroma makes her sick. She also harbors a skepticism as deep as his faith.
There are some problems with the play, beginning with the static situation that Hudson has set up. The only thing that can really happen — well, at least until the play's very last moments — is talk, and though there are some brilliant passages, at times it feels like a river of words. You never learn how and when Ruthie lost the use of her legs — or perhaps the explanation just went right by me on the word river. For a while I thought she had had an accident, particularly when she and Boas reminisce about how they'd fallen in love when she almost toppled out of a tree and clung to him for rescue. (Yes, they're in a treehouse now, and the symbolism in this passage, as in a couple of other places, is a bit obvious.) But then comes mention of an iron lung, which evokes polio.
Ruthie and Boas are played by Rachel and Michael Bouchard, who are indeed married. This must surely help them navigate the play's more sensitive and intimate moments, yet they also manage to communicate all the wonder and uncertainty of a new relationship, one that may or may not ultimately survive their differences and the isolated life Boas envisions. Both performances are very fine, and, together with the unexpected depths we encounter in the script, they make for an evening both touching and true.