Strawberry Workshop’s The Bells: Desperation and Haunting in the Klondikes

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Brenda Joyner, Peter Crook and Patrick Allcorn in Strawberry Workshop's production of The Bells at the Erickson Theater; courtesy of Strawberry Workshop
It is somewhat laughable that modern understanding of what happened during the Gold Rush, especially as it moved North into Alaska, is filtered through the Discovery series Gold Rush. In it we see the same type of rugged individualist we normally watch fishing for opi crabs in the Bering Sea struggling with machinery that breaks down regularly, among other tribulations. Modern setting aside, the show does communicate three things very well, the first of being the high stakes with which these latter day prospectors hunt for the ever elusive metal, which bleeds over into the sometimes friendly, often adversarial sense of competition that pits one prospector against the other, which unguarded tends to come across as petty jealousy and greed.

It also communicates an isolation that’s difficult to fathom in our everyday got-to-have-it-now world. A part breaks down today, it might be days before they can get a replacement, if you’re lucky. Once repaired, the prospector then crosses his fingers in the vain hope that something else won’t break down for long enough to actually make some money; assuming gold has been found. The last point the show communicates is the forbidding nature of the Alaskan frontier. Sure, it’s gorgeous, but if being at least half a day away from a decently sized city weren’t enough, mining season only lasts so long before operations need to be shut down for the winter. It may not be as ridiculously tough as facing the elements out in the Bering Sea for days on end, but mining for gold still does not look like a cake walk in the modern day.

One could only imagine what the realities were like during the first Gold Rush in the 1800s; tools were rudimentary, “every man for himself” constituted social conduct, and, as most who came West and then North were banking on striking it rich, if you didn’t have a fruitful claim you went broke, hungry and alone during the long harsh winter. Then the boom went bust and gold wasn’t that easy to find. History books tend to leave out the details of what followed, instead opting to stick with “those who couldn’t move back to the mainland, settled there.” What followed was desolate desperation.

This environment is the background for Theresa Rebeck’s The Bells, which is being produced by the Strawberry Workshop at Capitol Hill’s Erickson Theater. The play is set 20 years after the Rush ended, at an inn in the middle of winter in the Klondike mountains. The inn is not too isolated with a number of claims located close by, though it is still far removed from anything resembling civilization. Rebeck’s play concerns itself with some survivors of the lean years; we meet Mathias (Peter Crook), the inn’s proprietor, and his daughter, Annette (Brenda Joyner) — our first impression of them is that they have done well, somehow, despite not having anything close to regular business and Mathias’ habit of being charitable with the hard-luck, hard-living boozers who eke out a living at the local mines.

Said boozers, Charlie, Jim and Sally (John Q. Smith, Galen Joseph Osier and Lisa Viertel, respectively), have come to depend on Mathias’ charity when he’s giving and resort to thievery when he isn’t, which only happens when Annette intervenes. Into this group, Baptiste (Patrick Allcorn) arrives; Baptiste is a French-Canadian investigator, there to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of Lin Xuifei, a Chinese immigrant whose moneyed family back in China wishes to find out what became of him. Lin (played by Jose Abaoag) is the last character we meet, as he haunts the area where he was last seen alive.

Though the play is billed as a mystery, it is a somewhat misleading label, those who have spent time watching mainstream police procedurals during the last fifteen years will solve the Who, the What and part of the Why before the intermission break. Rebeck instead uses the search for the How and the remaining motive in order to explore themes of isolation and greed. An extenuation of Man Against Nature, and how desperation turns that battle into Man Against Man.

That Rebeck intends to focus our attention to these aspects is underlined by a short monologue given by one of the characters where they describe what it is like to watch a loved one waste away from starvation, knowing that there is little that could be done without money and that no one would help when all anyone cares about is getting ahead. At another point, Baptiste and Mathias get into a subtle battle of wits about the various philosophical implications one could arrive at living in such a far away land. Lin Xuifei, for his part, illustrates the hostile environment he subjected himself to after explaining the circumstances that led him here.

The mystery and the haunting are there to lead us through this exploration, they are the magnet that pulls the audience along through the rest of the story, they are not intended to be a means unto themselves. However, it is precisely these aspects which seem to have drawn the director’s attention. Julie Beckman has a good handle on the portions of the play that show us the How of the mystery, and an even better handle on the material dealing with Lin Xuifei and the haunting of his killer.

The same can not be said about a large number of the interpersonal dynamics between the remaining characters — between Annette and the drunks, for example, or Baptiste and the drunks, or Baptiste and Mathias. Which isn’t to imply that those portions don’t have merit, just that they could have been more strongly and deeply defined.

This is a very strong cast, top to bottom, highlighted by the trio of drunks played by Smith, Osier and Viertel, who go a long way toward filling in the colors of the landscape. Allcorn conveys Baptiste’s underlying loneliness well and Abaoag has a fine turn as Lin Xuifei, his work paying off during a confrontation with Mathias.

As per usual, the folks at Strawshop provide solid design elements to support the production. Highlights here include Evan Mosher’s sound design and the combined work of Reed Nakayama and Montana Tippet (Lighting and Set design). Together they evoke the desolate beauty of the natural setting; framing the picture with the hints of mountainous peaks where the occasional aurora borealis play.

Rebeck’s Bells is not intended to be a deep play, but its genre trappings are there to accentuate what deepness there is; by not fully developing those elements, the tension necessary to keep the atmospherics afloat isn’t achieved consistently throughout the evening. A commendable effort; not entirely successful, but commendable nonetheless.

Thursday through Saturday at 8:00p.m.; through February 18 // Erickson Theater, 1524 Harvard Avenue // $30

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