Griffin Theatre Revives Maxwell Anderson Classic
With its brave commitment to “lost plays” that have fallen from public view, Griffin Theatre Company takes a new look at Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset in a production directed by Ensemble Member Jonathan Berry. The decision to mount a revival of this 1935 script must have occurred long before Trump’s anti-immigration march to the White House gathered steam. But Winterset’s portrait of private facts and public falsehoods surrounding a notorious criminal case feels too close for comfort.
A lid on truth
Anderson drew fictional inspiration from the real-life fates of Sacco and Vanzetti, two radical-leaning Italian immigrants executed for murder during the 1920s’ wave of anti-immigration fervor.
In Winterset, Anderson imagines that one of these dubiously convicted men had a son, Mio, who is driven to prove his father’s innocence a dozen years after his death. The playwright also imagines the character of Garth -- an eyewitness to the crime who knows that a gangster named Trock, not Mio’s father, committed the murder. The case has been reopened and Trock wants to make sure that Garth keeps a lid on the truth. Meanwhile, Mio meets Garth’s sister Miriamne and falls in love, putting the young woman between Mio’s quest and her brother’s safety.
Immigrants and their offspring suffer the long-term effects of America’s warped legal system. Maurice Demus plays Mio, a young man whose singular goal of justice for his father is complicated by his romance with Miriamne (Kiayla Jackson).
Chris Acevedo as Garth expresses the anguish of a man who protects himself at the expense of others. Larry Balducci pulls off the difficult role of Judge Gaunt, haunted ever since he appeased public sentiment by sending the wrong men to the electric chair.
Dark and menacing world
Griffin Theatre specializes in crafting the look and feel of an era. Past productions have taken audiences to a modest English hotel at the height of World War II and a Glasgow tenement in the depths of the Depression. In Winterset, Griffin evokes a very different world of 1930s urban poverty – this time, the back streets of New York City. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly creates this dark and menacing environment while Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes reach Griffin’s high bar of period authenticity. Alex Ridgers’ lighting is appropriately ominous and sound designer Bradford Chapin’s rain effects are chilling.
Winterset’s exploration of economic disparities and cultural insecurities has renewed meaning in this tumultuous election year.
Nonetheless, the play is not an easy journey for contemporary viewers. The complex plot that references several offstage events can be hard to follow, even for those who remember the basics of the Sacco and Vanzetti case from high school textbooks. The dialogue, written in blank verse, is a tough match for the story’s social realism. But despite the mixed results, Winterset provides insight into the lives of people who are wracked by fear and regret.
Recommended for: immigration history buffs, Maxwell Anderson fans
Not recommended for: those seeking light-hearted entertainment
Now through December 23
Thursday – Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 3:00 pm
Added performances: Saturday, December 17 at 3 pm, Tuesday, December 20 at 7:30 pm, Wednesday, December 21 at 7:30 pm
The Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage
1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago
Regular – $36
Students, seniors & veterans - $31
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.