Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association.
Coming to terms with change is never easy, and death—one of the most absolute changes that exists—is one of the hardest things human beings ever have to deal with. Losing a loved one can seem overwhelming, especially around Christmas. It’s easy to believe that, if given the chance, any person would simply choose to keep things as they are rather than to risk that loss and its devastating realities. Otherworld Theatre’s second annual production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Winter Wolf directly addresses this issue, surrounding it in a bit of Christmas magic.
This simple, five-actor fairy tale centers on a young girl named Cora, played by the very expressive Molly Southgate. Cora lives in a cabin in the woods (which we are told has no walls, making its connection to those woods even more dramatic) with her mother (Katy Crow), father (Nathan Pease) and a beloved grandfather (Mike Rogaski) who is, as the play opens, very ill and probably dying. In an effort to keep his mind clear and focused on the present on this Christmas Eve, Cora begs him to tell her a story as he did in the old days, and he starts narrating the tale of the Winter Wolf, a frightening harbinger of death who lives somewhere in the woods.
Crow and Pease help bring the other characters of this story to life as it is being told, playing a sad little girl and a dying man who gets a visit from the Wolf despite the girl’s efforts to abort that visit.
Her grandfather having fallen asleep telling the tale, Cora sits by the fire, exhausted herself, until she hears a howling in the woods. It’s the Winter Wolf (eerily portrayed by Jessica Goforth) and of course she is coming for the old man. The frightened girl begs the spirit creature not to take him, to leave things as they are and not allow them to change. But when the Wolf grants this request, things do not work out quite the way that Cora had envisioned.
This isn’t a tale of some mischievous genie whose wish-granting always comes with a catch; it is a genuinely sweet holiday confection grounded in the reality that some things cannot be prevented, no matter how dearly you wish they could be. Under the direction of Sara Robinson, this cozy little home (whether or not it has walls) and its inhabitants become stand-ins for our own lives. The “parents” warmly welcome their “visitors”—the audience—and offer cookies and cocoa. Crow and Pease overact in that endearing way peculiar to this kind of play, inviting us into their household and their family’s in-jokes and traditions before assuming the roles of dual narrators for the main story.
Rogaski’s portrayal of the sick grandfather exemplifies the way that older people have of downplaying their problems when they are with children they care for, and it is very clear from their body language and interactions that this grandfather and granddaughter share a unique bond. Southgate allows us to see that bond’s importance with an open, honest performance, but one that brings to mind girls like Lyra Belacqua and Hermione Granger who, though faced with mystical forces beyond this world, maintain their composure as they deal with unfolding events. Cora is like that too: she argues passionately with the Winter Wolf despite her intrinsic fear of the supernatural creature, and she even ends up riding on its back, as Lyra does with the giant bear in The Golden Compass.
Goforth, wearing Meeja Hahn’s glorious costume, brings the Wolf to life as something partly feral, partly omniscient, and mostly (well) otherworldly. Her careful, dramatic entrances, her animalistic movements, and the slow and methodical speech patterns she adopts give gravitas to an immortal character who serves Time itself. And though the Wolf is a character completely lacking in sentimentality, as it must be in order to do its job, Goforth establishes through her interactions with Southgate that it is at least capable of understanding and responding to human feelings, thus adding a more sympathetic undertone to this specific incarnation of the angel of Death.
Robinson’s hand is clear in that creation, as well as in the clockwork-like movements that the actors employ as they are stuck in the changeless world that Cora’s wish creates. Directing a cast mostly comprised of veterans of the first production of this play (everyone except Goforth), she keeps its lovely warmth intact and its rhythms carefully preserved. This is not a particularly deep play, but it is very personal and emotionally satisfying. About the only thing not satisfying here is the fact that only a handful of people were in the audience when I saw it. This is a tiny theatre putting on a really sweet play about family and love in a season dedicated to those things; it should be sold out every night. Where are you, Chicago? Check out The Winter Wolf; it will bring a holiday smile to your face.
The Winter Wolf is now playing at Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, until Dec 29. The show runs approximately 65 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.