The death of a single mother sets into motion a police investigation that touches on themes of rural poverty, the social work system and trauma in a new play, "In the Snow," that opens next week.
Detective Cora Lee (Salina Chatlain, of the Montana Repertory Theatre) begins interviewing two social workers Jeremy Sher ("Dirty Sexy Chocolate Show") and Hailey Faust. The two have been identified as witnesses to the death of Linda Gow (Laine Bonstein), a single mom with a traumatic brain injury.
From that premise, Missoula playwright Kate Morris' script branches out into experiments breaking the fourth wall, and asks the audience to piece together a narrative and question their own judgments about the characters.
Producer Mason Wagner said the script was akin to reading David Foster Wallace. If the interrogation were told straight, it might last 30 minutes, he said. Instead, Morris wrote "footnotes that carry you to the side and shed light on what just happened, or what is about to happen, and create a more atmospheric picture of the emotional landscape we're living in," he said.
"As a producer I can wholeheartedly say that I've never encountered a play like this," he said. Wagner's indie theater company, BetweenTheLines, is producing the play as part of its second season, and its first original script.
Morris, who said the play deliberately defies an easy synopsis, earned MFAs in theater at the University of Montana and writing at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her scripts produced here in Missoula include, "Fake yr Death in 6 Lonesome Steps," "Venn Diagrams (or the Bee Play)," "Qyou Are Here," and "Graceful Exits."
Her experiences working at a child-care assistance nonprofit and the Poverello Center informed this script, which was completed two years ago. She'd never seen a play that accurately treated extreme poverty and the overarching social systems that perpetuate it. Gow, for instance, has a traumatic brain injury that may challenge how the audience and other characters perceive her life and choices. Faust's social worker, Elizabeth, has traumatic memories that will be re-enacted on stage as she relives them.
Morris said many of the successful plays produced time and again in the United States are "about family drama and damaged individuals, and they're very entertainment-oriented, but they're also asking us to ask questions about ourselves: How do you see yourself in these characters, right?" Her script asks the audience to see themselves in a disabled single parent who was unable to escape circumstances, or the social workers who assist her.
"We have a lot of preconceived notions about how these people interact, and nobody thinks that social workers are interesting enough to write plays or make TV shows about them. However, they have to deal with all of society's ills," Morris said.
By using the framing device of an law-enforcement interrogation, Wagner said, the audience will conduct its interrogation and make their own judgments that the play will question.
Another device that pushes past the limits of realism is the nightmare wolf who eats emotions, played by local favorite Jeff Medley.
Morris said the creature embodies how we cope with fear. "It will warp how you behave, it will change how you speak to people," Morris said, and the character "allows audience to see how fear works in a way that's removed from them."
The director is Kendra Potter, a Missoula native who acted in New York and has directed independent productions since returning to Montana. She said it's been a collaborative effort with the cast to develop the piece, as its many layers have their own rules.
Among its other timely themes, she mentioned the relationship with truth in an era where facts are up for debate.
Sher is choreographing multiple fight scenes, which Potter said are realistic, with "skin-on-skin pummeling," that separates it from cartoonish violence.
"It gives us an opportunity to come face to face with physical violence in way that turns our stomachs, that I think we become inured to in television and in film," Potter said.
Designer Mike Fink is building the set, which will include multiple physical levels: two interrogation rooms and a more "fluid" space between them. The action will unfold on stage and in the rows between the audience.
Wagner said it breaks the fourth wall more much than "Stupid F---ing Bird," Aaron Posner's version of Chekhov's "The Seagull," that they staged at the Roxy last year.
Fink said it's really "up to the audience to stitch together their own narrative."