You can tell the moment you walk into Seattle Center’s Theatre4 at Center House that Emerald City Scene’s head honcho Nathaniel Porter is thinking bigger with his new play No Snowflake In An Avalanche than most upstart theatre producers. Porter ambitiously detached the Theatre4 risers from the wall, something few productions do in this space, allowing him to deploy more chairs than the usual wall-side setup. Even with the rail-side back row empty and none of the floor space utilized, Porter was able to deploy about 40 chairs, whereas most can’t or won’t deploy more than 30.
And to Porter’s credit, most of those seats were full for the special Thursday night run, one of Theatre4’s better crowds. The production’s seen similarly solid crowds throughout the first two weeks of their three week run, and after two hours this show for the most part did not let any of those patrons down.
The play hovers around the mystery of maldeveloped Michael Thompson (Fox Matthews), who became a rambling quasi-autistic nutcase after a 2001 incident at a Disneyland hotel and never recovered, and around his older brother Jonathan (Alec Wilson), who struggles with a conflicted relationship with his troubled parents (Russ Kay and Pearl Klein) during the rare times he sees them. 9/11/01 is involved. The play jumps around in time, concluding incidentally during the pivotal moment that drives Michael to insanity. I’ll leave it all a mystery to maximize your enjoyment of the play should you go. Porter’s story does a fine job of crafting a mystery you want to learn the answer to, and the jumps forward and backward in time are well placed relative to the story, atypical of the oft-ill-advised time travel plot device.
As a growing playwright as well as a growing director, Porter’s story and show does have some struggles. Much of the dialogue tends to lack the natural rhythm and direction of human conversation, and this puts the actors in some tough positions, trying to justify dialogue that possibly is a bit far fetched for their respective moments. It’s nothing huge and doesn’t by any means ruin the play. But conflicts rise and fall with such speed that otherwise normal characters would seem a bit manic or nuts if they managed to play the moments to their fullest potential.
Therein lies the other shortcoming, and it may be in part a byproduct of the many sudden swings in the moment-to-moment dialogue. Russ Kay and Pearl Klein are actors with a rich but lower key energy, and often they’re required to blow up on another character. Often Kay and Klein can’t find the needed energy to really hammer those moments home. Many of their angry, passionate verbal or physical outbursts seem a bit artificial and held back. But at the same time an uncanny lot of these moments pop up throughout each scene, rather than a more natural, gradual boiling towards a handful of key moments. Kay or Klein aren’t ancient or anything, but their age is advanced enough that a salvo of such outbursts probably isn’t a good idea for their health. In that respect I can’t blame them for holding back.
Both Kay and Klein, even with several early moments that made it tough for me to buy into them, still gave their characters textured personalities that helped sell their bigger moments later in the play, even if a few of those fell flat. A relevant aside: There was one big moment where they used a contact slap but obviously you don’t want to slap someone straight up if you’re not stage combat trained. So the slap was so pulled it came off flat. A non-contact knap-slap might have worked better there.
So now that I’ve spent 2.5 paragraphs on the drawbacks, I should harp on more of the many good things this play does. Fox Matthews has a tough job in playing a trigger-damaged grown kid whose energy never comes down, and Fox never lets off the gas when he’s on stage. For this play to work we’ve got to see the damage in the still-somehow-human Michael and Fox absolutely delivered.
Alec Wilson, fresh off the proverbial train from Portland, gives the most natural and human performance of the cast as Jonathan, absolutely down to Earth and invested in his character’s every moment. There isn’t a moment with Alec where I didn’t think I was watching Jonathan Thompson’s life played out on stage. Alec is a bonafide acting talent and I hope to see much more of him around Seattle theatre down the road.
Molly Thompson had a fairly overt French accent but gave us a very human and engaged Bella Grimm, showing us every moment of Bella’s hurt and compassion as she wrestles with trying to connect with boyfriend Jonathan’s family.
The play itself flowed well and didn’t linger longer than it needed to. The show, with intermission, clocked in at just under two hours. The simple light design gave the stage a warm glow and Danielle Franich’s set design was minimal but perfectly effective in setting the scene with as little as 3-4 set pieces, a wooden doorway and a few necessary props.
At $15, it’s on the high end of acceptable for full-length fringe theatre, and I won’t call it spectacular or a hot ticket. But Snowflake won’t disappoint anyone who chooses to see it. It gives you all it’s got, and sometimes it starkly reminds you the show isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid example of good local theatre, the sort of local theatre you want to cultivate and give a continued audience.