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Phoebe in Winter

nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 9, 2013

Phoebe in Winter

Jeanine Serralles in a scene from Phoebe in Winter | Heather Phelps-Lipton

“We can’t come home to what we left. We have to come home to something new. And this is something new,” says one of the Creedy brothers, who went off to war together and have come home looking for a safety and surety that can no longer be found there. The play is nothing but aftermath: what came before now is no longer relevant, and the family (and, by analogy, the nation, the society, the world) can’t be forced back into its previous order, no matter how strong the will to do so.

“Something new,” in Phoebe in Winter, Jen Silverman’s vivid and darkly unsettling fable about  war and its consequences, is a family that has not just been made over in that aftermath of a war, but utterly transformed by the incursion of an outsider, a new “sister.” Three brothers went off to fight in a jungle together but only two came home alive—and trailing in their wake, a woman named Phoebe, carrying a very large gun. Her own three brothers were killed by the army invading her nation, and thus, using simple logic (mathematically appealing if emotionally discomfiting), she has determined that the Creedys shall be her family now; she will be their sister and they will care for her. Exactly how she came to choose them, and exactly what they owe to her, will be revealed over the course of the piece—but the making, unmaking, and remaking of the family around these brutal new realities will also force them all to face the pre-existing fissures within their home.

Before the war, the family comprised the four Creedy men (the autocratic, blustering, but fairly ineffectual Da and his three sons, the three brothers of any good folktale: Jeremiah, the bullying, self-righteous, opportunist eldest; Anther, the dangerously malleable middle brother, who will follow any stronger will and then disavow those actions; and the baby, Liam, weak in the eyes of his brothers and prone to flights of romantic fancy) and Boggett, their long-suffering maid-of-all-work who’s the only useful person in the household but who doesn’t have much affection for any of them except Liam. Now, though, there are only two brothers—yet three are required for Phoebe’s imagined family to be complete.

Jeremiah and Anther are home physically safe, but one’s memories are poisoned by what he has seen, and the other claims to remember nothing. And Liam has not returned—a problem for Phoebe, and thus, by Phoebe’s merciless rules, a problem for them all. The structure is more important than the individuals, the roles more important than the players, the veneer of civilized behavior more important than a working civilization. (As Phoebe says, “This is no longer a world in which things get fixed. This is a world of inadequate replacements. You are my inadequate replacements and I’m satisfied.”) So there must be a Liam, whether that role be taken by Da Creedy or Boggett (Boggett, in fact, may be a better Liam than Liam ever was).

And then Liam—the original Liam—steps through the door, with the back of his head mostly blown away, and the precarious, terrible simulacrum of a family warps further on its axis. As the people constantly reshape and reposition themselves to fit the needs of the story, their already tenuous bonds fray further; temporary alliances are made and unmade, and the war comes home in the most literal of ways.

There are things in the play that don’t entirely add up, but it hardly matters; the piece is effective and emotionally powerful as a series of metaphors or meditations, even when it might otherwise seem cryptic.  I find myself torn on whether the few emotional connections with any claim to be genuine (Boggett’s affection for Liam; Liam’s infatuation with Phoebe) are meant to ring just slightly false, as they did to me: meant to be another way in which the piece is illustrating the corrosion and dissipation of this world, another set of “inadequate replacements.”

Part of the piece’s effectiveness, too, comes from striking performances by the two women. Chinasa Ogbuagu, as Phoebe, is mesmerizing, as the piece requires her to be; Phoebe needs to be simultaneously terrifying and charming, an ultimate pragmatist and survivor who will wield power in whatever form seems handy. Jeanine Serralles, on the other hand, as Boggett, learns the taste of power over the course of the play, as she adapts from a surly but obedient servant who bitterly knows her place to a master strategist with a Lady-Macbeth-like quotient of ambition.

I did find the production slightly unsatisfying in certain respects. The play needs a certain amount of coarse physical reality: water in a bathtub, dishes to shatter, heavy old furniture that speaks of the weightiness of this family’s history and traditions. Yet here, the sheer size of the set pieces, and the demands of actually getting them where they needed to be scene by scene,  seemed awkward and sometimes choppy, making it more difficult to start scenes as crisply as they ended, and weighing down the piece’s fairy-tale quality.

Yet that quality prevails, an aura of dark magical thinking. I keep coming back to one moment, where Phoebe is trying to stake her claim to a bedroom (the bedroom formerly occupied by the Creedy boys’ long-dead mother). “You are my flesh and blood,” she says to Jeremiah, who replies, “Things like that can’t be so easily built.” Her rebuttal, like an incantation, is ”Things that are easily destroyed should be easily built. No? Big brother?” But as the play shows, the building can be as dangerous as the destruction; they can’t come home to what they left, but what will be made out of the shattered pieces will always show its seams and scars. I won’t forget Phoebe in Winter anytime soon.