CHELSEA — Perhaps a bone-chillingly cold evening was the perfect occasion to see “Greenland.” Nicolas Billon’s three-hander deals a lot with ice — things it covers, things it connects, things it breaks apart. Even at a preview performance Friday night, this Apollinaire Theatre Company production felt fully realized, if curtailed by the shortcomings of the material.
Director Meg Taintor, whose Whistler in the Dark theater went dark last year after a nine-year run, keeps her actors onstage throughout the proceedings, beginning with the pre-show. On a spare stage — the stage surface is painted to resemble an ice floe, and a hanging, rectangular mural suggests the vertical ice of a glacier, or the vast and chilly ocean — each actor inhabits a separate part of the intimate playing space. Each eventually rotates to the front to deliver a monologue. We’re meant to register that an emotional divide belies their physical proximity, or something — the motif of icy distance seems only to relate to two of the three characters.
“Greenland” concerns a Canadian family. Tanya is a teenage girl whose life has been gouged by tragedy. Jonathan, an expert on glaciers who spends long field assignments in Greenland, is her uncle and a mentor of sorts. His wife, Judith, stays home to smoke cigarettes and count the ways she is unsatisfied. The audience is charged with piecing together the connections and missed connections that unite and divide this trio.
The three vignettes are meant to play off of each other artfully, filling in narrative gaps and touching on thematic refrains. But they feel more incomplete than ambiguous. The play is never quite the jaggedly beautiful depiction of alienation it wants to be.
Given the glum-faced pantomime that opens the show, it’s a jolt when Charlotte Kinder’s Tanya begins the first monologue in an impossibly chipper manner, ostensibly practicing a presentation on Greenland she is scheduled to deliver in class. She is all karate chops and amiable mugging. Kinder fearlessly channels Tanya’s bundle of nervous energy and self-consciousness, but this is, in effect, a tonal shift misplaced by playwright Billon at the top of the play. In such a short piece — the one-act clocked in at less than an hour — it amounts to an awkwardly extended bout of misdirection.
Occasionally Kinder nimbly stops on a dime to reveal the submerged grief that Tanya does not know how to process or understand, and then barrels forward again. “It made a cracking sound,” she says of her broken heart in a lovely turn, a sort of inspired wonderment informing her sadness.
Dale J. Young is casually likable as Jonathan, a scientist who discovers a new island off the coast of Greenland that previously had been connected to the mainland by a now-receded glacier. Young’s line-readings are startlingly natural, and one has the sense of seeing him sort out a train of thought silently before amusing himself with an unexpected observation. Jonathan may be an inattentive husband, but in Young’s hands he’d be a perfectly suitable dinner-party guest.
Still, we don’t necessarily glimpse the hardiness and near-obsession that would inspire this not-so-rugged glaciologist, possessing the demeanor of a park ranger, to camp out alone in the wilderness and risk a disfiguring bout of frostbite — but the playwright requires that detail to add a dash of mythological symmetry, so it’s there.
Christine Power milks every moment of stage time with a perfectly wound performance. As Judith, she performs the rare trick of using sarcastic humor as a way to inspire empathy rather than merely as a shield. A one-time actress who follows her maternal instincts into an ultimately suffocating domesticity, Judith gestures at herself and dryly asks, “Is this a Juliet?” No, she concludes, but she’s perfectly happy to play the “best friend” role. (Or more precisely, if not Shakespeare’s Juliet, one imagines she’d be a splendid Nurse.) When Power’s bit is over, we’re sorry to see her go. (Gillian Mackay-Smith will replace Power for the production’s final weekend.)
Billon intends “Greenland” to be a little music box of a play, with all its gears carefully calibrated to create a soft but potent melody. It indeed has moments of quiet poetry. But in its forced symmetries and echoes of Inuit mythology (cough), it feels more like a tribute to the playwright’s thoughtful cleverness — or an afternoon spent researching creation myths — than a group character study. To merely withhold information and then reveal it is a narrative shell game; a more satisfying exercise would take the facts of the matter for granted and then explore their implications.
“Greenland” would be the very promising first act of a longer play. As is, it’s somehow both underwritten and overcooked.Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@jeremydgoodwin.