With wry humor, canny wisdom and an expansiveness of heart that captures the true spirit of the season, Eugene playwright Rachael Carnes has penned a quasi-Christmas play that should hereby enter the canon as a minor holiday classic.
At Winter’s Edge, wrapping up this weekend at Very Little Theatre, takes the timeless yearnings of yuletide — peace, love, communion, commemoration — and cracks them open in a postmodern omelet of timely concerns and social difference, bringing together a slew of diverse characters whose forced and prolonged contact inspires both tension and its release.
The play, a one-act, is set exclusively in an East Coast airport in the dead of winter, as a ragtag assemblage of strangers gathers at the gates for flights out to their various destinations. Among the various passengers is a Jewish man (Paul Rhoden) rushing to witness the birth of his granddaughter and a young Muslim (Dawaun Lawler) heading home to be with his dying father.
A snowstorm hits, and the gate attendant (David Stuart Bull) announces that flights are canceled and all roads out have become impassable. Anxieties flare as these passengers of various creeds, ethnicities, persuasions and traditions — a cross-section of modern America itself — hunker down for a long winter’s night amid a fluorescent limbo of halted mobility.
It’s a rich conceit, made even richer by the roving custodian (Darryl Marzyck) who intermittently passes among the passengers like a one-man Greek chorus pushing a broom, addressing the audience with his gimlet-eyed observations. The set-up is also rife with sentimental pitfalls, but Carnes — a regular contributor to Eugene Weekly who’s currently gaining national recognition as a playwright, and for good reason — navigates it all with uncommon smarts and artistic generosity.
Directed by Carol Dennis, who collaborated with Carnes on the idea, the play achieves the seemingly impossible: It critiques and gently skewers our holiday traditions while at the same time refashioning those traditions, salvaging their deeper value through a shared humanity that is hard won but open armed. Carnes traipses just this side of liberal grandstanding, and much of the play’s humor derives from the sparks that fly between what characters say they want and what they really need.
The result is a holiday play that doesn’t lean on the holidays for support. Rather, it threads its way through the stale trappings of holidays past, shouldering aside the seasonal detritus — the family squabbles, the rote religiosity, the expectations and the pressure — to locate some small, hidden ember of compassion and, yes, universal understanding. It’s like Seinfeld’s “Festivus for the rest of us,” a progressive and inclusive vision of communion that is no less spiritually valid for questioning all the wreckage our culture has wrought.
Fun, funny and just the right amount of warm-fuzzy, At Winter’s Edge offers a wonderful alternative to the standard holiday fare. It’s neither too heavy nor too light, and in that sense it elbows its way to the table with intelligence, good cheer and something new to say about our winter doldrums, and how to overcome them.
At Winter’s Edge plays Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 12-15, at Very Little Theatre’s Stage Left; info and tickets at thevlt.com or 541-344-7751.