4/18/2021 A HUNDRED WORDS FOR SNOW Theatrical Outfit
BEARDY DEAD MEN
Is there a stronger, more all-consuming experience than grief? Playwrights old and new have turned to grief to drive their plays – Euripides’ Women of Troy, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief, Michael Brady’s To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, Mike Leigh’s Grief, and, of course, the epitome of them all, Hamlet, by that “beardy dead man” in Elizabeth I’s London.
To this embarrassingly too-small-to-be-representative list, we can now add A Hundred Words for Snow, by Tatty Hennessey, a monologue centered on a 15-year-old London teen gob-smacked by the accidental death of her father. Rory (short for “Aurora,” a name she absolutely despises) has so many memories of faux adventures with her Dad, a middle-school Geography teacher with aspirations of exploring the “blank spaces on the map.” Finding a notebook in her father’s study, she reads about his plans to take her on an actual adventure, a trip to the North Pole, when she becomes old enough.”
Devastated by learning the trip would be in less than a year, Rory impulsively takes her father’s urn of ashes, and, without a word to her grieving mother, runs off on her own adventure. Her father will have his final trip to the pole.
But which one? Rory adores quoting facts. “There are actually five north poles.” “The assumption that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow is a myth.” “The Beardy Dead Men who perished on their own polar quests were racist assholes.”
But Rory is only fifteen – can she possibly complete her quest?
Well, I suppose that is the backbone of the play. Not as ill-prepared as you may imagined – her father left copious notes and details and plans – she nevertheless acts impulsively and makes a lot of mistakes. But she also wins the protection of several people she meets, including an older teenage boy in Norway (who has a different kind of exploration in mind) and an older woman “with a long grey queue,” a painter and explorer herself, who takes Rory under wing until …. Well, let’s leave the plot spoilers behind at this point.
This is such a well-constructed monologue. little factoids recited at one point bear fruit in experiences later. Ms. Hennessey never lets us forget Rory’s age, as we see her excitements and fears, and wide-eyed discoveries. And it concludes with a beautiful resolution that depends for its considerable impact on casual comments dropped along the way, on vivid descriptions of the people in Rory’s life (at least how she sees them), and on our own experiences with working through grief.
Playing Rory is Kristen Jeter, who we saw previously in last year’s Flex from Theatrical Outfit’s Downtown Dialogues, in School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre, and in Ghost at the Alliance Theatre. She nails a perfect London lower middleclass accent. More than that, she captures that mammoth black hole of grief that seems to be consuming her, without losing her youthful sense of adventure, her sassy wry humor that brightens even her darkest observations. And when it gets cold – and of course it gets VERY cold – Ms. Jeter shifts unto teeth-chattering perfection, even making me shiver in the snug warmth of my laptop space. This is such a terrific, multi-layered performance, that I can only rejoice that it was “permanently” captured on streaming video.
This is the first play fully staged at the Balzer Theatre at Herrens since the start of the pandemic, with a basically bare stage that provides a “limbo” for Rory to tell us her story. Ben Rawson’s lights are evocative and help establish place and mood, and Brian Wallenberg and Saturnblu Productions’ videography and editing elegantly serve the piece well. The play was directed by new T.O. artistic director Matt Torney, and he was able to make what is essentially a two-hour play of a young woman standing and talking to us seem dynamic, fluid, and compelling.
I have always had a weak spot for stories of grief, so, you could probably claim that I was bound to like this play. That being admitted, I more than liked this play, I adored it. Weaving an elegant tapestry of grief, loss, adolescence, hope, coming of age, and good old-fashioned adventure, A Hundred Words for Snow is a spell-binding experience, a play to savor more than once, a character who will echo in your memory so much more than those beardy dead men whose bones lie under the arctic ice (the “nothing they died trying to find”). Watching this play is an exercise in hoping a certain urn-full of ashes, the last remains of a man who never fulfilled his own dreams, eventually joins those long-frozen explorers, It is an exercise in hoping the young Aurora accepts the brilliantly glorious legacy of her own name. It is an experience whiter and purer than snow itself.
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy #toSNOW)