Winterset is a tough and beautiful play. Griffin Theatre’s production of Maxwell Anderson’s Depression-era play, directed by Jonathan Berry, is admirable, simply staged and appropriately performed, and, for the most part, excellent.
The Winterset story reflects the aftermath of the 1920s Sacco-Vanzetti case. Two immigrant Italian workingmen, anarchists, were accused, tried, found guilty and executed for a crime they did not commit. The fact that the crime and the trial took place during the height of the Red Scare ensured an unfair trial. No credible evidence was ever introduced to prove their guilt. Playwright Anderson clearly intends us to share the anger of their descendants and right-thinking people years later, even though the real names of the accused are not spoken in the play. The story of justice denied rings true today. Berry adds an ironic emphasis, whether accidental or purposeful, by casting African-Americans as characters Anderson described as Jewish or Italian. Eighty years later, African-Americans still suffer the same injustices that Italians and Jews did then.
The setting is 1934 New York … a tenement building beside a bridge. A poor Jewish family—Garth, his younger sister Miriamne and their father, Esdras, a rabbi, live in a cellar apartment.
Garth (Christopher Acevedo) was involved in a crime committed in the past and has been warned to lay low. He’s a violinist and yearns to play his music. Miriamne (Kiayla Ryann) begs him to tell the truth. And Esdras (Norm Woodel) makes an eloquent speech to warn his son about the real nature of justice.
“Let the wind and fire take that hour to ashes out of time
and out of mind. This thing that men call justice,
this blind snake that strikes men down in the dark,
mindless with fury, keep your head back from it,
pass by in silence—let it be forgotten, forgotten!”
But Miriamne says “Is it better to tell a lie and live?” And Esdras responds, “Yes, child. It’s better.” Miriamne: “But if I had to do it—I think I’d die.” Esdras: “Yes, child. Because you’re young.”
Later, on the bridge, Miriamne meets Mio (Maurice Demus), a young man who has bummed around on the west coast and come back to New York because he thinks he can find out who was really guilty of the crime and clear his father’s name. His friend Carr (Londen Shannon) tries to talk him out of this pursuit. But Mio is Bartolomeo, son of Bartolomeo Romagna, who was one of the pair executed in 1927 for robbery and murder.
Miriamne and Mio dance to the music of the street-piano man, Lucia (Matt Rockwood). As they dance, the chemistry grows between them in a tender way.
Complicating their lives is an ominous-looking character named Trock Estrella (Josh Odor), who has spent time in prison and doesn’t want to go back. He’s searching for the person who knows the real story of the 1920s crime. Judge Gaunt (Larry Baldacci), the original trial judge, is a character intent on sorting out the truth, despite his mental and emotional incapacity.
And thus Anderson sets the moral structure of the play. Crime, injustice and poverty complicated by young love.
As I noted, Winterset is a tough and beautiful play, difficult to perform because of its elevated poetic language, spoken by plain people. It also may be difficult at the beginning for the audience to follow. (People I spoke with at intermission were confused about the meaning of the first act.) But the pieces of the story come together in act two.
A suggestion for the theater company: It might be helpful to include notes in the playbill providing some context for the story. I believe that every work of art stands on its own, but knowing a little about the events that inspired Winterset would enhance the audience’s appreciation of the characters’ anger and grief.
Director Berry has done a fine job choreographing his cast in the very small playing space and coaching them in their sometimes difficult dialogue. For the most part, the actors do a credible job with Anderson’s blank verse. Odor, Demus and Ryann are excellent as Trock, Mio and Miriamne. But Woodel’s portrayal of the rabbi should be vocally and emotionally stronger.
Joe Schermoly created a bare-bones set that functions as the bridge exterior or the family’s flat. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes create the mood of poverty and dignity.
Winterset received the first award for best play granted by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle in 1935. Its Broadway production starred Burgess Meredith as Mio and Margo as Miriamne. The play ran for 179 performances. Some of the same cast appeared in the 1936 film.
Winterset by Griffin Theatre continues at the Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park. The play runs 2.75 hours with two intermissions. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Tickets for $36 are available online or by calling 866-811-4111.