It was an emotional night at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theater on Wednesday, as the theater officially reopened its doors and had an opening night for the first time in 20 months.
"None of us could have imagined that it would be 20 months," said Berkeley Rep Managing Director Susie Medak, who addressed the invite-only audience both before and after the performance. And Medak repeatedly thanked the theater's subscribers, board, and generous donors, saying, "I can say without a hint of hyperbole that we would not be here without you."
The Rep already made the cautious decision to move its first scheduled show of the 2021-2022 season from October to the end of the season, which will now be next September. And instead they are opening with a winter-themed show just as the holiday season kicks off, Charles L. Mee's Wintertime, which had its original premiere in a very different time nearly two decades ago.
The play feels appropriately claustrophobic, outside of time, and introspective as we emerge from this pandemic 20 months, centering on a modern family unit of a sort who have come together accidentally at their vacation house in the middle of winter, just after Christmas. We start with Jonathan (Micah Peoples), a twentysomething who has brought his girlfriend Ariel (Carmen Berkeley) here in a snowstorm, very much in love and intending to propose. In walks his mother, Maria (Nora El Samahy), in a dressing gown, followed by her lover Francois (Thomas Jay Ryan) — neither mother nor son knew the other might be here, but only Jonathan really minds.
Throughout the play's two acts over two hours, it never stops snowing outside the door — and we see this through a square window high on the wall of designer Annie Smart's spare set. And we are treated to one of Mee's signature mashups of realism, Greek tragedy, Beckett, and melodramatic performance art — with at least one chaotic moment at the close of Act 1 that calls to mind a show he had at Berkeley Rep two decades ago, also directed by Les Waters as this is, Big Love.
Love, jealousy, betrayal, and death are the key subjects here, and Mee's characters work their way through these concepts, almost obsessively gnashing and talking out the messes that people make of their lives through a lack of self-knowledge, or maturity, or wisdom — which perhaps no one really has when it comes to love.
There's a misunderstanding that seems almost absurd having to do with Ariel seeming too familiar to Francois. Francois learns that Maria has been secretly sleeping with her semi-ex-husband Frank (James Carpenter) every Friday. Frank's lover (David Ryan Smith) feels like he's never been truly allowed in to Frank's life. And mystery woman with a French accent — a good percentage of characters here, also absurdly, have French accents — named Jacqueline (Sarah Nina Hayon) suddenly appears to prove that Francois lies to everyone.
In between, two amusing lesbian neighbors hover, Hilda and Bertha (Sharon Lockwood and Lorri Holt), and bring their own squabbles.
Some of the relationships here don't ring that genuine or affectionate, but that may be less a fault of the performances or the direction than the script — which is really aiming for realism. These are characters here to deliver, and argue over, the world of ideas, and the many states of the human condition. Still, Hilda and Bertha have perhaps the most believable bond
There is the specter of death, the celebration of life and togetherness, the humiliations of love, and a good deal of people being annoyed and disgusted with each other — and in Mee's world, this is all, equally, reason for joy.
Berkeley Rep wanted to choose a play that would help usher us out of our doldrums and the perhaps circular introspection we may have found ourselves in this past year, and Wintertime is an effective balm for that. We must be reminded of the simultaneous pleasure and pain of other people's company, and the delightful chaos that comes with not knowing what tomorrow may bring.
And, if nothing else, a piece of art like this, with all of its humor, absurdity, and challenging ideas, reminds us of the vitality and importance of live theater.
Wintertime plays through December 19 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here.
Top image: (l to r) Carmen Berkeley (Ariel), Sharon Lockwood (Hilda), Lorri Holt (Bertha), James Carpenter (Frank), Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois), Jomar Tagatac (Bob), and Micah Peoples (Jonathan) in Berkeley Rep’s production of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime, directed by Les Waters.
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre