Some stories arrive at exactly the right time. With the air getting colder, the colored leaves spreading over the ground, and newspaper headlines growing ever more alarming, my long Friday of last week was given a beautifully sad requiem by Smokebrush Theater's dead-on production of Stephen Metcalfe's Strange Snow, the funny and disturbing story of two Vietnam veterans confronting their past after 15 years.
We first meet the volatile Megs (Keith Smith) as he bangs on the door at 5 a.m., ready to catch trout on opening day of the season. When William Blake said, "Exuberance is beauty," he was thinking of guys like this: borderline obnoxious, smiling fools with motor-mouths who don't take no for an answer and rope you into crazy things you end up being grateful for -- that is, if you don't punch them in the mouth first. Smith's tour de force performance alone is worth the price of admission.
The exasperated target of Megs' hounding is the hung-over Davey (Michael Augenstein), a former football hero with a handlebar mustache and droopy posture who now drives trucks and tries to forget the war. His sister Martha (Amy Brooks) lives in the house too; she teaches at the local high school and lacks every single one of Megs' excesses. As she tells him, "You make me want to laugh and cry at the same time: I rarely do either one." Brother and sister are extremely well-played: The only possible problem I could detect, which doesn't impact the play negatively, is that Brooks, recently seen in Lend Me a Tenor, is too good-looking for her romantically challenged character.
A ridiculously funny breakfast scene, in which Martha drinks her first beer ever and Davey tries to keep from puking, segues into the play's central rumination. As it turns out, Snow is full of ghosts. Notably, there's Bobby, who did everything right before he violently died in the war. His presence gracefully haunts the production, brought to mind by the Red Sox cap Megs totes with him. Even though all the action happens indoors, the dialogue allows us to sense machine gun fire and feel the jungle much more clearly than special effects could ever muster.
I once sat in on a conversation between two security guards, both Vietnam veterans. One carried around a Time-Life book full of pictures and newspaper clippings; the other was emphatic that Vietnam had given him nothing good at all. Similarly, when Megs argues that "things happen for a reason," Davey can only respond with paralysis: "What reason?"
At a certain point in the play, something happens that makes us wonder where the story will head -- toward tragedy or toward a more hopeful resolution. Ultimately, though, regardless of the outcome, we become aware of the human toll that words such as sacrifice and honor can truly entail -- what risk really means. More people died in Vietnam than were buried. The fact that many veterans persistently live is a testament to their courage and imagination.
This isn't the first time Snow has appeared in Colorado Springs. In 1993, TheatreWorks' David McClendon directed a version featuring both Augenstein and Smith. I missed that production, but here, director Paul Mathewson captures the naturalistic cadences and tragicomedy of the Chekhovian script perfectly, benefiting from the actors' familiarity with each other. If you're the sort of person who rarely sees a play (or even if you're not), I can't think of more worthy contenders for your time and attention than these deeply real characters.