On its license plates and on a reality television series, Alaska refers to itself as “The Last Frontier,” an appropriate moniker for America’s second-youngest and largest state. Until 30 years ago, the federal government still gave away land to enterprising individuals who agreed to work it and build a home on it under provisions of the Homestead Act. It’s on one of these homesteads in 1922 where we meet the characters of Snow Child, the new Arena Stage musical based on Eowyn Ivey’s novel of the same name.
A rural homestead isn’t a typical setting for a stage musical, butSnow Child is far from typical. There are no big dance numbers or elaborate costumes or anthemic songs that could become standards. The music comes from a string band and the central emotion at the heart of the show is not love but grief. One character might not even be a real person. In the first act, book writer John Strand and composers Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt seem poised to challenge musical theater tropes, which makes it all the more disappointing when they revert back to them in the second act.
When we meet our protagonist, Mabel (Christiane Noll), she has fled 1920s Pennsylvania for an Alaskan homestead with her husband, Jack (Matt Bogart). Worn down by the tragedy of losing their biological child and the difficult farming land, they consider returning east. But in a moment of snowy cheer, they build a small child out of snow and decide to stick it out through the winter. The snow child disappears, but soon Mabel (and later Jack) encounter a young girl dressed in the same hat and scarf they wrapped around the frozen figure. Surely this is a hallucination, their neighbors George (Dan Manning) and Esther (Natalie Toro) assume, but she grows through the power of imagination like a frontier version of Barney the Dinosaur. Even if George and Esther can’t see the girl, she’s real enough to tell Jack and Mabel her name—Faina (Fina Strazza)—and mystical enough to find Jack a moose to hunt, save him from certain death when he’s injured in a plow accident, and start a blizzard after George and Esther’s large adult son Garrett (Alex Alferov) kills her pet fox.
Some of this ambiguity about Faina, you’d think, would get resolved after intermission. Alas, Act 2 opens with George and Esther conspiring to take over Jack and Mabel’s property. Jack, laid up in bed while recovering, becomes addicted to the pain relief concoction he’s been given. It’s up to Mabel to plant the land with help from Garrett, who just 20 minutes ago was attempting to hurt the person she loves most. Faina becomes an afterthought while they dig hole after hole.
By the time the crops are harvested, all of their problems are miraculously resolved. George and Esther decide they won’t force Jack and Mabel off their land; Jack, who can somehow walk again, decides to give up the drugs; and Mabel shrugs off her once-intense devotion to Faina, assuming that she’ll see the girl next winter or, perhaps, never again. Everyone gets a happy ending except the audience, which is left trying to make sense of the tonal shift and awkward resolution.
The cast makes the most of the uneven script, particularly Noll, who conveys Mabel’s instability without resorting to cliche. Similarly impressive are the ensemble of puppeteers who manipulate the animals that populate the stage. Designed by Emily Decola and directed by Eric Wright, the puppets animate the otherwise bleak, though beautiful set—this is supposed to be rural Alaska, after all.
A love, or at least a fond familiarity with the 49th state, seems like a prerequisite for one to really getSnow Child. Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith hails from Alaska, composer Bob Banghart still lives there, and the show (produced in association with Perseverance Theatre, which Smith founded in 1979) will move to Juneau and Anchorage after it closes in D.C. Smith’s affection for the material is evident in her careful directing, but even that can’t make up for a second act that is confusing at best and features songs that border on repetitive.
Grief and loneliness are complex emotions that should be handled with care. Asking an audience to believe that a successful potato crop can make up for losing loved ones and living off the land in the remote reaches of the world does a disservice to them and to the characters.
At Arena Stage to May 20. 1101 6th St. SW. $65–$110. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.