Winter People at the Boston Playwrights’ Theater
It’s a particularly East Coast feeling—the eeriness of a summer resort in winter, when February winds blow through the dormant wooden roller coaster at the amusement park or an empty plastic bag blows across the frozen, barren beaches of New Jersey. Laura Neill’s new play, Winter People, takes us to a small town in the Hamptons after all the “summer people” have returned to their Manhattan apartments and Connecticut homes. Between and around the empty mansions of the rich, life goes on in the local Rite Aid, the fire station, and the public library for the lower-class families that remain.
When one of the empty mansions burns down one morning, the town’s racial and economic tensions come to a head as everyone tries to figure out who done it. Families are pitted against one another in the small community, each ensconced in its own struggle to survive while also inextricably tied to the fate of every other family. It’s a compelling premise for a play and one that Neill, who grew up in a Long Island summer town, knows well. The current workshop production—part of the BU New Play Initiative produced jointly by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Theatre—captures the absurd smallness of small towns, where one fire burns everyone.
The show’s main gimmick is that five actors carry a dramatis personae of 14, each actor playing all the characters of his or her entire family. Organizing the show by family is a clever move—in small towns, a family name means a lot. Your family’s reputation precedes you. You are a “Miller boy,” “Miller’s younger sister,” “Ramirez’s cousin” or “Brown’s mother.” You’ve got cousins, they’ve got cousins, and it’s all a little too close for comfort. In this production of Winter People, director Avital Shira managed easy, natural transitions between characters and clever costumes by Chloe Chafetz made the delineations between characters clear despite the small cast.
Strangely enough, though, not all characters were portrayed with the same success, even when performed by the same actor. In general, the cast of Winter People struggled to capture their more youthful characters. When Lynn Brown (played by Lyndsay Allyn Cox) spoke to us as a mother worried about her teenage daughter’s acceptance to college, it was much more compelling than when that same actor spoke to us as Taylor, the teenage daughter who becomes increasingly disenchanted with her rich friend, Cat Abott (played by Conrad Sundqvist-Olmos). Ditto for Jason Waters (played by Jaime Carrillo), who was a much better father than a daughter, Raven. As a playwright, Neill has a better ear for her older characters than for their teenaged children. Dialogue between the teens simply didn’t sound like teenagers talking to one another. More specifically, even, Neill is a writer of mothers. In Winter People, the concerns, frustrations, and anxiety of the mothers were its most sympathetic notes.
Winter People is a pugnacious, stressful 100-minute play. Whether the struggle is teen pregnancy, the threat of deportation, a reneged scholarship or closeted queerness (yes, the play has them all), Neill captures the bitterness and anxiety of people who can’t afford to relax. Gone are the leisurely brunches and comfortable afternoons of the rich. Yet the production would have benefitted from taking things a bit slower, giving us more time to feel the struggles of its characters rather than announcing them to us.
WINTER PEOPLE. 12.6-12.16 AT BOSTON PLAYWRIGHTS’ THEATRE. 949 COMM. AVE., BOSTON. BOSTONPLAYWRIGHTS.ORG