The Immediate Theatre Company

We tend to think of a coward as someone who shrinks from external danger, but a more pernicious type of coward shrinks from self-knowledge, from internal danger. This coward always tries to blame his troubles on others. If he loses his job because he drinks, his boss is a jerk. If he beats his wife, she’s a bitch who keeps asking for it.

Strange Snow is about both types of cowardice. The play revolves around two Vietnam buddies, Megs and David, who don’t see much of each other anymore, even though they live in the same town. But on the opening day of the trout season, Megs shows up on David’s doorstep before sunrise with fishing poles, bait, and hip boots. “Wake up you great fool,” he bellows. “We’re gonna dance on Charlie the Tuna’s grave.”

David is comatose from all the beer he drank the night before. His sister Martha, a frumpy, overweight schoolteacher, answers the door, brandishing a five iron in self-defense. Megs, a hyperactive truck mechanic, is loud, silly, and not too bright, but he’s nice to Martha, so she invites him in. Gradually, she falls for his flattery and accepts his invitation to join the trout fishing expedition.

Up to this point, Stephen Metcalfe’s script follows the formula of a TV sitcom: The characters, who deliver laugh lines every few seconds, embark on an adventure that invariably ends in chaos. Sure enough, Martha returns from the fishing trip dripping wet because Megs got excited and accidentally pushed her into the water.

But then the story takes an ominous turn. Martha invites Megs to dinner, which sends her brother into a rage. “He was crazy,” he yells at her, “and Vietnam made him crazier. He’s spent more time in the can on assault charges than you can believe.”

Martha persists, which sets the stage for the confrontation between these two soldiers who have never fully recovered from the firefight in Vietnam that killed their mutual friend Bobby.

I won’t divulge the specific act of cowardice, but in the aftermath it is Megs–the dim, inept outsider–who has the courage to face himself, while David, the former bright, popular high school athlete, shrinks from self-knowledge. In this respect, Strange Snow bears a striking resemblance to Lynn Siefert’s Little Egypt over at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Both plays contain a macho Vietnam vet who drinks too much and abuses people. Both contain a simple sidekick who falls in love with an intellectually superior woman. In both, the woman coaxes frightening visions from her admirer, who turns out to be almost saintlike in his sincerity and ability to forgive.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but Strange Snow got to me, while Little Egypt struck me as cold, sneering, and cruel. I know that Lynn Siefert is a far more sophisticated and original writer. Little Egypt, like her Coyote Ugly, which the Steppenwolf ensemble brought to life two seasons ago, is full of wonderfully grotesque characters, who are as irresistible as carnival freaks–and just as deformed.

Metcalfe never fully transcends the sitcom formula; his imagination seems to be fed by prime-time TV, which contains nothing but shallow characters and predictable plots. Yet, of all the books, plays, and movies on Vietnam I’ve encountered, Metcalfe’s Strange Snow gave me the strongest sense of how battlefield terror–and the visceral response to it–can sap a man’s faith in humanity and leave him ashamed of his own will to survive. The play travels an enormous distance from its sitcom setup, ultimately achieving some genuine insight into the dynamics of self- loathing.

Director Caroline Dodge Latta handles both extremes of the spectrum well. At the beginning, when the sitcom strategy is still in effect, she has John Montana play Megs as a lovable buffoon, grabbing laughs wherever he can find them. Peggy Goss, prim, proper, and school- marmish, plays along with the high jinks of her unlikely suitor. Paul Raci tones down the sullen bitterness of David, who can barely utter a civil word to anyone.

Later, when Metcalfe shifts gears, the performances change too. Montana begins to display some intelligence and understanding, without contradicting the persona he has already established for Megs. Goss emerges from her protective hostility to become sensuous–seductive almost–with Megs. Raci allows his character’s anger to progress like a fever–flaring into delirious rage before breaking, leaving him limp and broken, but on the road to recovery.

Like Megs, Strange Snow is simple and unpretentious. It’s too loud at times, and might make you feel as if you’re wasting your time with a shallow dolt. But it contains insights and enough sincerity to compensate for any lack in sophistication.