Two of Broadway’s most anticipated plays feature families dealing with difficult events on the brink of World War I. The Snow Geese, written by Sharr White, depicts the struggles of a floundering family matriarch (Mary Louise Parker) shortly after the sudden death of her husband. The death means that her two sons must settle the Gaesling family’s affairs, though both do so in extremely different ways. On the one hand, the rambunctious and idealistic Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) returns from university and enlists in the war effort. His more serious-minded brother Arnold (Brian Cross), however, uncovers a history of financial mishaps while sorting his father’s estate, and must break his brother’s and mother’s idealism with the cold, hard facts of their situation. Meanwhile, their aunt (Victoria Clark) and German-born uncle (Danny Burstein) face discrimination as the anti-German sentiment rises.
The other play is a revival of The Winslow Boy, by Terrence Rattigan. This play does not deal directly with the war itself (it is mentioned in conversation a few times), but more so on the disruptive changes occurring in the British family structure in the years leading up to it. The Winslow boy in question is Arthur Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) who is expelled from his prestigious military academy for allegedly stealing another student’s mail package. That’s the British army for you. His father (Roger Rees) decides to dispute the charges, resulting in a more than two-year long court case that holds unexpected consequences for the rest of the Winslow family, especially his suffragette daughter (Charlotte Parry).
The decade preceding the start of World War I is a really fascinating one because of all the changes British society is undergoing. Women’s Rights, class and political upheaval, revolution in Ireland, and changing views on art and tradition are all brewing controversy and change in these few years; and if these are the volatile gunpowder in a societal keg, the upcoming war explodes it.
That’s why the two plays’ focus on families trying to hold on to the last remaining vestiges of their pasts makes absolute sense for the time period. For the Gaesling family, the past has a far more ephemeral quality. It comes in drug-induced dreams about the dead, a soiled legacy, and doubts about how the family has come to their current situation. Arnold is the hard realist who must break the family’s ties with the past, first by seeing it for what is really is.
With the Winslow family, the past is altogether far more tangible. The production makes a point of demonstrating objects, costumes, and scenery with great realism. There’s even a photograph taken (by one-scene actor extraordinaire Stephen Pilkington, also the pita guy in One Man, Two Guvnors) with a antique camera. The Snow Geese also features extraordinarily realistic sets, but it is far more dreamlike in its lightning and movement.
The endings of both plays are happy, yet slightly somber. Duncan Gaesling is off to home, a little down-trodden but optimistic nonetheless. Arthur Winslow’s case ends and it is not clear whether he is to be reinstituted at the academy. Regardless, both boys will be plunged into the trenches, and odds are they’re not going to come out. Nearly a million British soldiers died, a fact that would more readily come to mind for British audiences than American. I was hoping that The Winslow Boy would make mention of this; perhaps Arthur’s expulsion from the military has a bright side in that he won’t have to, well, be in the military. Still, he may have volunteered, as did many patriotic young boys and their friends, or conscripted depending on his age in 1916. Either son could have survived the war, but returned home disabled or shell-shocked. The real-life Arthur Winslow, George Archer-Shee, was killed, aged 19, at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. Rattigan doesn’t ruin his happy ending with that tidbit of information, though I would have liked to see how a play like this would have dealt with that reveal. This is only the cusp of the Gaesling and Winslow family struggles.
On a lighter note, can I just mention that Roger Rees, who played the Sheriff of Rottingham in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who played Maid Marian in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, are playing husband and wife in this show? It’s like a terrible, wonderful dream land.