Playwright: Maxwell Anderson
At: Griffin Theatre Company at
The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Runs through: Dec. 23
Last week, I reviewed Electra ( Court Theatre through Dec. 11 ), the 5th-century BCE verse tragedy about a son who returns from long exile to revenge his father's unjust execution.
This week's play is Winterset, a free verse tragedy written in 1935, about a son who returns to New York City seeking revenge for his father's unjust execution. Winterset ( meaning the winter solstice ) is not based on the ancient Greek model, instead borrowing rather obviously from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and King Lear. A prize-winning success in its time, Winterset today is rarely performed and seems odd. It's an ambitious work to attempt, which Griffin Theatre Company does not quite master in an uneven production.
Audiences of 1935 would have recognized that the play's plot and social justice theme were inspired by the Sacco-Vanzetti case of 1920-1927, in which two Italian immigrant anarchists were executed for murder after a highly prejudicial and questionable trial. Viewers would have connected the real-life Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the fictional Bartolomeo Romagna. Audiences today are far less likely to know the play's historic basis.
Instead, they'll encounter plot mechanics echoing 19th-century melodrama, assembling all the key players under highly-improbable and coincidental circumstances. Winterset gathers Bartolomeo's truth-seeking son, the real killer and two witnesses, the Orthodox Jewish father and sister of one witness, the patrician trial judge ( now half-mad with guilt ), assorted down-trodden local citizens and a bully cop, all crowded into a tenement apartment. Almost predictably, the son and the witness' sister fall in love, although teenagers like Romeo and Juliet.
All the characters are introduced in Act I amidst confusing shifts of focus and a diversion into 1930s Leftie populism. Acts II and III provide clarity and a predictable tragic ending, but the play may lose you by then. The forced plot structure had me asking, "Why didn't they shoot the bad guy when they had the chance?"
Winterset possibly still could sing with a stronger production. However, some cast members do not deliver the play's free verse dialogue in a way which makes it either believable or rich as language. The play looks like realism but is not, and the languageeven common or vulgar phrasessounds wrong when spoken as realistic dialogue, as would Shakespeare or Electra.
Several of the leads are strong but others are not, resulting in portions which sound clumsy or are unclear in thought. Director Jonathan Berrywhose work I usually admirehas not created a unified ensemble approach to the text this time. Winterset certainly looks appropriately somber and threatening on Joe Schermoly's hard urban riverfront set, under Alexander Ridgers' moody lighting. Despite imperfections, Griffin Theatre deserves praise for staging this challenging, important work of U.S. theater.