McCarter World Premiere Features Greed, Ghosts and Melodrama; "The Bells" Depicts Struggle for Survival in Alaska Wilderness
It's dark, cold and desolate. The wind whistles. The snow falls. Mountains loom in the background. Almost all colors are blacks and whites, as the light wanes. The setting is the Yukon, 1917, in Theresa Rebeck's The Bells, currently playing at McCarter's Matthews Theatre.
It's almost 20 years after the end of the gold rush, but old prospectors still remember and are still hopeful that they can stake a claim and get rich. And the ghost of XuiFei, who mysteriously disappeared 18 years earlier, continues to haunt Mathias, now a middle-aged widower, who, along with his grown-up daughter, has managed to survive and even prosper as the local innkeeper and dry goods merchant.
A stunningly dark and beautiful set by Eugene Lee, Frances Aronson's chilling lighting effects and Darron L. West's eerie sound design all contribute, under the sure-handed, dynamic direction of McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, to create the physical and emotional effects of this bleak and desperate world where ghostly figures lurk and darkness threatens to consume all. The chill, to both body and soul, is almost palpable.
This is a world familiar to Jack London, a world where only the fittest survive. And what will a man do to survive? What does it mean to be human in a world like this? As brought to life on stage at McCarter in a world premiere production, this is also a world of melodrama, where the characters live in extreme conditions and are driven to commit extreme acts, to compromise all morals for survival and for wealth.
Ms. Rebeck, whose extensive film, stage and television work includes L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, and Third Watch, writes in a program note, "There's a wide misunderstanding that during the 19th century the form of melodrama presented audiences with a depleted or second-rate story telling. In fact, melodrama's emphasis on muscular plots, spectacle, and the extremities of human experience present a kind of theater which could veer wildly between expressionism and psychodrama. With the support of a more richly imagined language and psychology, melodrama becomes epic."
Whether it's Charles Dickens or Uncle Tom's Cabin or Snidely Whiplash or Love Rides the Rails, melodrama can have an undeniably strong audience appeal, and almost all the necessary ingredients including a certain richness of language, depth of psychology and an eagerness to grapple with moral and philosophical issues are present here. What seems to be missing is the dramatic tension that melodrama and mystery tales depend on to keep viewers at a high pitch of excitement and engagement. The production values in The Bells are superb. The seven actors are all first-rate. But if this is a "muscular" plot, then somebody had better bring on the steroids.
The story focuses on the genial innkeeper Mathias (Ted Marcoux) and XuiFei (Pun Bandhu), the ghost of the Chinese prospector. Xui Fei is on stage throughout most of the drama often watching in the background, occasionally coming forward to reenact a scene from eighteen years before when he presented a gift of small silver bells to Mathias' young daughter Annette (Marin Ireland) or to express his dashed hopes of returning to his town in China to rejoin his family and to marry his beloved. Sometimes only Mathias and the audience see him, and sometimes he is visible to the other characters, but most importantly he functions as a disturbing manifestation of Mathias' guilty conscience.
Mr. Bandhu effectively establishes the strength of will and the determination of the wronged victim, as Mr. Marcoux creates a powerful tension between his character's affable, warm generosity on one side and the darker elements that emerge later. Ms. Ireland is thoroughly appealing as a little girl, as her father's loving daughter and in her later relationships with the other characters of the play.
Mathias and his anxious daughter run their establishment, catering to the locals, whom Mathias feels an obligation to take care of. Jim (Paul Butler), Sally (Fiona Gallagher) and Charlie (Michael McCarty), three aging, misfit holdovers from the gold rush days are the clientele here. They serve as a sort of chorus of exposition, comic relief, and background commentary, but also present interesting, sympathetic characters in their own right. Jim and Charlie were prospectors and Sally was a whore in the old days, but all three now worry about drinking themselves to death, as they spend their time telling stories and sharing flasks of alcohol.
The arrival of Baptiste (Christopher Innvar), a French Canadian bounty hunter seeking information about the mysterious disappearance of XuiFei, brings the plot to a head, as Mathias' guilt becomes increasingly apparent. A budding romance between the handsome Frenchman and Annette complicates matters and intensifies Mathias' desperate pangs of conscience.
In the second of two acts (less than two hours altogether including intermission), the psychodrama predominates, as Baptiste and Mathias discuss the moral questions of what humans will do to survive, and Mr. Innvar's suave and stalwart Baptiste probes the mind of his suspect. (A stint as Javert in Les Miserables on Broadway obviously provided Mr. Innvar with valuable training in the requisite dogged determination in pursuing his prey.) But Mathias cannot escape the ghost of Xui Fei and the accompanying sound of the ringing bells, as the play prepares to reveal what a man will do for the sake of survival and money.
The dialogue is mostly deft and engaging, but the philosophizing becomes a bit heavy-handed, the romantic intrigue doesn't make much progress, and the suspense is diminished by the fact that the audience, along with Baptiste, knows the criminal, the victim, and where this plot is headed. There are few narrative twists along the way.
Recalling his tragically short life and death, XuiFei claims that "in the wilderness of nature we learn who we are." The Bells does not provide final answers to the question of what it means to be human in the wilderness. Ultimately we are left with the darkness, cold, and solitude with which Jack London frequently left his readers: "Their hearts turned to stone those which did not break and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail."
The Bells will play through April 10, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. For reservations and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www. mccarter.org on the Web.