Through May 20
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“Hello Winter!” “Hello Silence!” Standing on the frozen river’s edge, Mabel, the most unlikely of homesteaders, shouts the opening lines of “Snow Child” to no one in particular.
Making its world premiere at Arena Stage in a bold and beguiling production directed by Molly Smith, “Snow Child” is a musical adaptation of Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel “The Snow Child,” a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Set in 1920s Alaska territory, it follows the travails of Mabel and husband Jack (played by golden-throated Broadway vets Christiane Noll and Matt Bogart) who’ve left more circumscribed lives behind in Pennsylvania to claim some acres and carve a working farm out of the wilderness. When we meet them, the couple is facing the onset of a bleak winter and still mourning the recent loss of their only child.
Jack spends days clearing the land while Mabel remains alone often sketching. Her isolation is interrupted with the appearance of a mysterious girl from nowhere. Mabel is intrigued with the illusive snow child Faina (tween actor Fina Strazza) accompanied by her tamed white fox. Initially Jack and down-to-earth homesteader neighbors George and Esther (played with folksy humor by Dan Manning and Natalie Toro) and their expert trapper son Garrett (Alex Alferov) doubt Mabel’s sanity, suggesting she’s imagined the girl.
But as Faina warms up to both Jack and Mabel, her appearances become increasingly frequent. A skilled hunter who’s thoroughly adept in the outdoors, Faina helps the novice settlers adjust to their new lives, subtly assisting Jack with his first kill — a gigantic moose that gets them through the first winter.
Then just as things begin to look up for Jack and Mabel, a spooked plough horse kicks Jack, breaking his back. It’s here that Mabel, the inept frontierswoman, is forced to prove her mettle. Trading ladylike duds for workpants, she successfully plants a crop of potatoes with the help of young Garrett. Armed with newfound confidence, Mabel asserts herself and takes her rightful place on the farm.
A toe-tapping score by Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt combines Alaskan string-band traditions and contemporary musical theater. And the design elements are pleasing. The various animals, so important to the story, are marvelously crafted puppets, designed by Emily Decola and expertly handled by a skilled ensemble (Dorothy James, David Landstrom, and Calvin McCullough). Designers Todd Rosenthal (set), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), and Roc Lee (sound) transform Arena’s Kreeger Stage into the wilds, chilly and remote, with colorful northern lights, snowcapped peaks, the surround sound of wildlife, frozen river and cozy rustic cabin.
At times, John Strand’s book feels thin. Jack’s re-learning to walk and magically shaking a newly acquired laudanum addiction are glossed over. Still, the leads have created nuanced performances. Handsome Bogart exudes good humor and strength as Jack, and Noll wonderfully assays a sensitive and ultimately strong woman who is charmingly out of her element.
A co-production with Perseverance Theatre, the Alaska company founded by Arena’s artistic director Smith before coming to D.C., “Snow Child” is in many ways a love letter to her former home’s ruggedness, vastness and possibilities. In part it’s about healing. It’s also about surviving that first winter. But for Jack and Mabel both are one in the same.