The Cry Pitch Carrolls: Winter Wonderland

Local Arts Reviews

The Cry Pitch Carrolls: Winter Wonderland

John Henry Faulk Living Theatre,

through December 18

Running time: 1 hr, 15 min

They are widows, women whose lives are defined by their attachments to their husbands, even in death. They wear their widowhood as age, their skin lined and pale and papery, their postures stiff, their voices quavering. In pastel pinks and blues and yellows, they shuffle feebly through the snowy streets of Ishpeming, Michigan, and through what is left of their lives.

What happens to these women is at the heart of Ruth Margraff's alternative opera, The Cry Pitch Carrolls, a work that, in the way of the best seasonal tales, finds us when the year is at its darkest and offers us light. Just when we may be most tempted to turn in on ourselves, it opens us to redemption and to a transformation so rare that we tremble with the wonder of it.

Margraff gives us three widows -- Edith, Alice, and Norma -- in a "town of widows." Theirs is a world largely serene and simple, but it is also a world of winter, a place marked by the cold and the dark. Into their neighborhood come a woman and child with no shelter of their own. The woman, who claims to be the widow of a Bible smuggler captured behind the Iron Curtain, seeks refuge with Edith, the prickliest of the widows. Suspicious of the woman and her son, Edith refuses, and the Bible Smuggler's Wife must erect a manger for herself and her son, Small Christus. On the trail of Edith's runaway poodle, Alice and Norma encounter the freezing mother and child, and an act of charity toward them leads to the widows being allowed to be with their late husbands one final time. And from this magical event, the widows are reborn.

The presence of magic in tales of Christmas has become as common as snow, so common that we are often inured to its power just as our skin is numbed by long exposure to the snow. And yet, at the right moment, snowfall can still dazzle us with wonder. And in The Cry Pitch Carrolls, as produced here by Salvage Vanguard Theater, the magic is so natural and pure and white that it is able to amaze us.

Margraff seeds the air with enchantment through her dense but lyrical text, wherein we feel the ache of loss and absence and a longing to be warmed and made new. But the rest of the production's elements build on those qualities in their own singular ways. Kristin Abhalter's set is like a snow globe or the kind of holiday window display that took your breath away as a child, its tall curtains of white and fluffy carpet of "snow" creating a perfect winter world unto itself. Against this whiteness, Regina Del Pico's softly hued costumes offer subtle clues to character, her "widow's weeds" the epitome of genteel lives. And when lighting designer Ruth Hutson drenches that whiteness with one primary color after another, it's like an operatic blast of feeling.

Of course, the emotion of the piece would not be as clear without the exceptional music of the Golden Arm Trio, which caresses Margraff's text and lifts the story to new levels. Not all of the score is melodious -- in fact, some of it's out-and-out harsh -- but it is true to the tale's emotional core, and when that core is warm and tender, the music winds itself sweetly around your ear.

The performers bring great heart to the tale: There is profound sorrow in April Matthis' Bible Smuggler's wife and raw wails of pain in Joseph Meissner's fully grown Small Christus. The three widows are charming creations, with girlish glee radiating from Lana Lesley's Norma and Becky Stark's Alice, and a beguilingly crotchetiness in Shawn Sides' Edith. But they reveal moving depths to these women when they confront their late husbands, and Meissner provides the ideal counterpoint to each.

As they shed their old skin for new and fresh snow falls about them, it is a moment of sweet, sweet fulfillment. And we can almost feel swirling about us blessed flakes of grace.

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