Cross Purposes Theatre

at the Playwrights’ Center

Ebenezer Scrooge spent a certain fateful night in the company of spirits from the past, present, and future, but at least he only had to deal with three of them. Ellie, the heroine of Jane Chambers’s A Late Snow, has four, and unlike Scrooge’s ghosts, her spirits are flesh and blood. And, like Ellie, they’re lesbians. They’ve all shown up at the same time–only to be stranded together by a late snow in a secluded cabin, which produces a drama of recollection and renewal.

An almost-middle-aged teacher at a small, conservative college on the eastern seaboard, Ellie is celebrating the first anniversary of her relationship with Quincey, a passionate and boisterous young student. Thinking that Quincey is going to be away, Ellie shows up at their secluded cottage with a new friend–Margo, a well-known, earth-motherly writer who Ellie hopes will come teach at the college. Ellie is strongly attracted to Margo but doesn’t know if her interest is returned. Thinking that Ellie is going to be away, Quincey has come to the cottage with an antique cupboard she’s bought as an anniversary present–and with the antiques dealer she bought it from, a tomboyish, slightly vicious alcoholic named Pat, who not coincidentally is a former lover of Ellie’s. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, four’s an explosion in the making; but even as Ellie tries to sift between her past, present, and future relationships, along comes a friend from the distant past–Peggy, the ex-cheerleader who was Ellie’s, um, “best friend” in college until she made a “perfect” marriage–which she is now considering abandoning.

Soap opera? You betcha. But more than that, just as A Christmas Carol is more than a ghost story. In the handful of plays she wrote before dying of a brain tumor in 1983, Chambers pursued–and, certainly in this 1974 play, achieved–two goals. One was to broaden the genre of domestic drama by treating homosexuality in an adult, balanced fashion. “A lesbian was like a vampire,” one character says of her youthful search for role models. “She looked in the mirror and there was no reflection.” Chambers sought to provide those role models. Which is not to say she glorifies homosexuality–her characters, at least two of whom are bisexual, have their uncertainties–but nobody wallows in self-hatred, and nobody tries to kill herself or anyone else, as queers tended to do in the bad old days of The Children’s Hour and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (and as they still do on occasion, in plays like the silly and repugnant Lisbon Traviata).

More important and more universally, Chambers deepened the form she wrote in by investing herself fully in every one of her characters, so that their varying needs and perspectives and confusions are equally “right.” There are no good girls and bad girls in A Late Snow, only people who hurt each other and suffer, who love each other on their own changing terms and often find that isn’t enough. Through Ellie’s emotional haunting by her former, current, and potential lovers, Chambers explores a series of interlocking concerns. Some are specific to the homosexual world of the mid-70s: Ellie’s discomfort with Quincey’s lesbian militancy in a time when a student gay society would be described as a “radical group,” for example, and her fear that Margo, who was once married, will react negatively to her lesbianism. Other concerns are universal: the need for independence chafing against the need to belong, fear of change, the young’s dissatisfaction with youth, and the fear of aging felt by the middle-aged.

All of which may make it a surprise that A Late Snow is as funny as it is; its deft balance of humor and seriousness make it much more entertaining than Chambers’s maudlin Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, though it’s also much more moving than her goofy My Blue Heaven. Chambers’s characters are always witty and sometimes bitchy, and like their creator they have a pronounced affinity for the histrionics and the dishiness of soap opera. Lines like “I think women get better with age–like good wine” and “I was just someone to come home to between the binges and affairs” keep A Late Snow just on the edge of campy trash through the first act and much of the second; then, having raised expectations of over-the-top melodrama, Chambers smoothly shifts gears, bringing her characters to clear-eyed self-understanding in which hurt leads to healing.

Kelly Johnson’s staging (in the tiny studio space with a remarkably convincing set by Daniel Michael Frazier that includes what seems to be a working fireplace) uses a quintet of actresses who are mostly too young for their roles by a good ten years each; in a play about people trying to break down emotional barriers built up over years of unhappy relationships, their lack of maturity leads to a lack of tension. But the actresses–Lisa Marie Ackel as Ellie, Debra Rodkin as Margo, Kathryn L.V. Mueth as Pat, Amy Lynn Henry as Peggy, and Elisa Alvarado as Quincey–touchingly connect with the core of gentleness and warmth that makes this comedy-drama enormously satisfying.