Arts Listings

Arts: Ackerman’s ‘Ice Glen’ at Aurora Theatre

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday November 17, 2006

In Ice Glen, Joan Ackerman’s play in its West Coast premiere at Aurora Theatre, the eccentric inhabitants of a country estate in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, circa 1919, are disturbed in the pursuit of their various autumnal tasks by the unannounced visit of a Boston editor, seeking to publish the poems of one of the denizens—who doesn’t want her poems published, or even memorized, by a stranger. 

Anyone familiar with today’s poetry scene might be jolted by this unlikely response, but the bucolic housemates take it in stride, more unsettled by the surprise visit and its immediate consequences. Meanwhile, the poet brusquely turns away from welcoming the visitor and returns to her seclusion in nature, where she’s already been mauled (or at least jostled) by a bear, whose unseen presence haunts the play, a spirit of place, or maybe a simile for another unseen presence: the ursine and profligate late master of the domain. 

The insistent editor stays over, at the pressing invitation of the late master’s young widow, visiting the sites—the Ice Glen of the title, for instance—he would like to help the poet immortalize, treating the poet herself as some kind of monument. But an impulsive response to his hostess’s welcoming confidences, followed by departure and silence, muddies the waters, implying a triangle to the others, overlaying another, older triangle. 

Ackermann has a talent for repetition that develops into inference, and an ability to offhandedly disclose the backstory in her glib dialogue. The fine cast, with Barbara Oliver’s direction, is more than a match for the virtues in the dialogue and whatever’s intriguing in the situation, with fine performances by Lauren Grace as the widow, girlish Dulce who endeavors to act the proper lady, and Julian Lopez-Morillas as taciturn manservant Grayson, whose repeated questionings of the editor as to why he wants to publish the poems gradually reveals less incredulity than intuition as to motive. 

These two are by far the most interesting characters. Jessica Powell has a field day with housekeeper Mrs. Roswell, that sanguine fount of gloom, soliloquizing (when she isn’t gossiping) over the sad onset of winter; Marvin C. Greene represents insoucient editor Peter Woodburn very well as he shifts his gears, rediscovering himself under the professional glaze. But these are types—rustic comedienne and repressed city slicker—as are the other two roles, even more so: Zehra Berkman as self-occulting nature poet Sarah Harding and Douglas B. Giorgis as inquisitive but “slow” orphan Denby both get the most out of parts that are limited in conception, stereotypes that are sometimes overly decorated with colorful language—their own, or the epithets of others. 

There’s local color tipped in—Greylock, the peak that figures in Melville’s Piazza Tales—and a fair amount of period name-dropping: Edith Wharton has sent Sara’s poems to Woodburn at the Atlantic Monthly, unbeknownst to the poet. And Woodburn tries to gain Sara’s confidence, or impress her, by offering to get Wallace Stevens or T. S. Eliot to read her poems—not too enticing an offer in 1919, when Stevens’ Harmonium hadn’t yet come out, and Eliot had only a very few poems out in little magazines. A fashionable editor might have mentioned Amy Lowell to a talented, eccentric young woman writer. 

Ice Glen brings up issues of art, communication, loss and sociality, as well as that old chestnut of city-versus-country. But it treats its novelistic themes in a precious and tidy way, despite a few leading ideas, much like Masterpiece Theatre or Hallmark Hall of Fame would, adapting books by second-rate imitators of Wharton or Henry James, sentimentalizing the great authors’ concerns with the dearth or control of communication in a provincial society. 

The fine efforts of director, cast and designers (John Iacovelli’s set and Anna Oliver’s costumes especially) help skirt kitsch, but the overriding sense is of a feel-good reversal of another trip by a Boston editor, years before, to visit a recluse, whose poems he felt were too unusual for print. That editor found Emily Dickinson unbearably intense as a person as well as poet. Such is the tragedy of art in America in its ongoing phases. In Ice Glen, the poetry is finally just another pretext for therapy, self-expression and, one way or another, recognition. 




8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 10. $38. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. 843-4822.