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Losing a parent is hard. Losing a parent when you are in the middle of adolescence is even harder. Rory, the protagonist of Tatty Hennessy's A Hundred Words for Snow, seeks closure after the death of her father, a geography teacher and amateur explorer. After she discovers that her late father had been planning a trip for the two of them to the North Pole, Rory decides to complete this unfinished dream (with ashes in tow).
Grieving and exploration
If this sounds hokey, it’s because it is. The metaphorical connections between grieving and exploration should provide rich ground; however, the 90 minutes we spend with Rory (Satchel Williams) feel pleasant, but largely inconsequential. The most apt comparison I can make is to a decent young-adult novel. The story is interesting, the character is more or less engaging, but the emotional arc we traverse feels shallow and unoriginal.
The play’s form also distracts from the story it’s trying to tell. In direct addresses to the audience, Rory narrates a lot of the action. This means we continually hear what is happening, and very rarely see it actually happen. There are a few moments where this is successful. Early on in the play, Rory gives the audience a mini-lecture (and I mean that in the best possible way) about the cultural, historical, and scientific importance of the North Pole and polar exploration. This was fascinating and engaging. In that moment, Rory’s relationship to the audience made perfect sense.
I find very little fault with Inis Nua’s well-executed production. Williams is captivating in an unforgiving role. Rory's is the sole voice in the play, mostly narrating the action, sometimes briefly stepping into the moment. With so much telling, and so little showing, Rory has to quickly build a rapport with the audience, and succeeds mightily. Williams’s performance is both plucky and appropriately ego-centric. In my favorite scene, Rory has sex for the first time with a strapping young Norwegian. We experience the encounter only through her point of view. Williams sensitively portrays the excitement, anxiety, and self-loathing that can be part of teenage sexuality. Claire Moyer’s direction keeps the action moving, despite the challenges of the source material.
Phenomenal work by set designer Christopher Haig and lighting designer Amanda Jenson greatly aid the show. Haig has created a simple playing space with ramps, steps, and a walkway, allowing Moyer to simply and efficiently distinguish different settings as Rory makes her journey from London to Norway. For a backdrop, Haig creates what looks like glacial ridges out of a sturdy paper (resembling the material in IKEA lamps). Jensen uses the texture of the paper for stunning, almost hallucinatory lighting effects. Using deceptively simple materials, the designers manage to capture the sublime beauty of the frozen tundra.
But in the end, I wish these fine artists had a better script to work with.
What, When, Where
A Hundred Words for Snow. By Tatty Hennessy. Directed by Claire Moyer. Inis Nua Theatre Company. Through February 23, 2020, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.
The Louis Bluver Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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