GLOUCESTER — For a man well into his 60s, David Kipling is on a physically daunting mission in Israel Horovitz’s “Man In Snow’’: guiding a group of Japanese honeymooners on a climb up Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, in temperatures that plummet to 26 degrees below zero.
But for most of this elegiac and piercing one-act drama, directed by Horovitz at Gloucester Stage Company, a more punishing toll is taken on David by the existential, familial, and spiritual issues with which he is wrestling.
In exploring the pain of loss, the possibility of reconciliation, and the random — or perhaps not so random — workings of fate, “Man In Snow’’ goes to some raw and primal places, especially in its haunting finale.
David has brought a lot of baggage to the mountain. He is riven by grief over the death six years earlier of his beloved son in a motorcycle accident. Though David engages in affectionate banter with his wife on the phone, he seems uncertain about the depth of her love for him. His relationship with his adult daughter is a fraught one. Newly retired after a career spent working in finance, David is haunted by the thought that he may have wasted his life. In a big-picture sense, this guide is lost.
Horovitz is not. For all its journeys from the present to the past and its forays into metaphysics, “Man In Snow’’ brings a compactness and clarity to ideas that, in less capable hands, could come across as amorphous. Only periodically, when David recites a poem he’s working on, does a certain fuzziness materialize around the play’s edges. Also, though we’re told that David summitted the mountain four decades earlier, his qualifications to work as a guide in the here-and-now aren’t clear.
On balance, though, “Man In Snow’’ reflects the tautness of construction and vividness of expression that have long been among the hallmarks of Horovitz, who made his name in the 1960s with dramas like “The Indian Wants the Bronx’’ (which starred a young Al Pacino) and is still going strong.
Speaking of unflagging veterans: Will Lyman, who portrays David, is utterly convincing as a man unmoored from all he once thought was solid. One of Lyman’s gifts is a knack for communicating, with compelling but subtle force, the vulnerability of outwardly strong men. Lyman’s David has experienced a kind of crumbling within that has left him with only questions. Some of those questions he poses to his dead son, who materializes frequently, a projection of David’s imagination. “Why am I alive, Joey?’’ David asks. “What am I meant to be doing?’’
Portraying Joey is Francisco Solorzano, who wisely does not overdo the character’s ethereality. (The actor also starred in Gloucester Stage Company productions of Horovitz’s “Sins of the Mother’’ and “Gloucester Blue’’ in recent years.) As David’s wife, Franny, the gifted Sandra Shipley skillfully traverses an emotional range from playful flirtatiousness to the anger of betrayal to helpless anguish.
The strong cast also includes Ashley Risteen as their daughter, Emily, who cannot contain her resentment at being second in her father’s affections, even on the day of Joey’s funeral; Paul O’Brien as Connie, David’s cousin and fellow guide; and Ron Nakahara as Mr. Takayama, a translator who has told David that the Japanese honeymooners have come to Denali because “they believe a son conceived under the Northern Lights will be more sexually powerful.’’
“Man In Snow’’ originated as a radio play nearly two decades ago. Horovitz was inspired to write it by a real-life episode in which a man was trapped in a cabin under 30 feet of snow after an avalanche on Mount McKinley and, according to an author’s note by Horovitz, “spent the last minutes of his life on a mobile phone, saying goodbye to his wife.’’ The Gloucester Stage production is the world premiere of Horovitz’s full-length stage adaptation of his radio play. The next stop for “Man In Snow’’ is La MaMa, in New York, featuring the same cast.
Horovitz’s staging makes expressive use of the Gloucester Stage space (the set design is by Jenna McFarland Lord). From the movements of the actors, the marked boundaries they do or do not cross, and the lighting (by Mark O’Maley), it’s always clear which scenes are happening in David’s memory, in his imagination, or in the present.
In the final scene of “Man In Snow,’’ the sweeping philosophical questions David has been asking himself about life and death are telescoped into a harrowing new context. Apart from the intrinsic drama of the crisis David faces, the effect of the scene is to elevate and intensify the stakes of all that came before it in this fine play.
MAN IN SNOW
Written and directed by Israel Horovitz. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, through Oct. 23. Tickets: $28-$38, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.