The rotting remains of an abandoned gold mine stand as a solitary monument to the gold seekers, their disappointment and their greed on a frozen stretch of the Yukon. In the distance, barren snow capped mountains further suggest the remoteness of the place. The wind howls ominously through set designer Eugene Lee’s abstracted vision of this desolate but nevertheless haunted place, as we shall see in Theresa Rebeck’s play "The Bells." The year is 1917, 17 years after the gold rush ended. A ghostly figure appears and laments, "I don’t want to die here. I want to die in my home." XuiFei (Pun Bandhu) is a ghost, a
Chinese prospector. His spirit has been unable to leave the scene of his murder around the turn of the century.
On a street in town, two old former prospectors and a wasted-looking woman bait and call each other names with an emphasis on Sally’s character: "A liar, a whore, and a drunk and a thief." A little exposition comes from Charlie (Michael McCarty), a portly old geezer who waxes poetic on the old days when old friends would say, "we’re gonna kill you like they’re asking you over for dinner or something."
Jim (Paul Butler) can only focus on Sally (Fiona Gallagher), who is evidently hoarding a bottle that she stole from the local inn. Still harboring the idea that they can return to an abandoned mine and discover gold, we see them as pathetic fools.
At the inn that also serves as the general store, Annette (Marin Ireland) is venting her anger to the proprietor, her father Mathias (Ted Marcoux), over the disappearance of bottles from the bar. Raised since infancy in virtual isolation since her mother’s death in 1899, Annette is now a young woman bitter and lonely and a bit rough around the edges. That is until the unexpected appearance of Baptiste (Christopher Invar), a dour and wooden (certainly in Invar’s portrayal) French-Canadian bounty hunter who has been hired by the
family of the Chinese man to find the murderer. Don’t look too hard at Mathias, whose unsettling and volatile behavior may offer some clues, not to mention the $30,000 he has squirreled away.
In Rebeck’s melodramatic and metaphysical play, we can recognize the Shakespearean allusions: the hovering presence of a tormented ghost, the unwitting mechanicals, and the guilt-ridden perpetrator. Evidently unnerved by the impending investigation, Mathias is found in the snow, his arm cut by his own axe, and carried back to the inn by Baptiste. Mathias can’t figure out how it happened. And no one can figure out how to make the mysterious bells that XuiFei once gave Annette ring. The sound designer Darron L. West makes sure that we hear them, especially when Mathias speaks of the money.
Although Rebeck alludes, in her program notes, that this play is an homage to the kind of 19th century melodrama that emphasized "muscular plots, spectacle and the extremities of human experience," her play plods along mainly through characters required to offer exposition through drearily intoned speeches and reveal themselves through tiresomely long philosophical musings. There is precious little muscle in the plot, even when it includes another murder. There is no spectacle, save for some falling snow. And as for the extreme human
experience, it must be the amount of patience, fortitude, and stamina that it takes the audience to survive this play.
This is a play in which everyone gets a chance to say more than we need to know. Credit goes to Bandhu for haunting the proceedings with a degree of poignancy, as he reflects soulfully of his quest to find enough gold to buy his girl friend’s freedom from a house of prostitution. Although fitting the mold of every grizzly greedy prospector that ever populated the Klondike, McCarty has his work cut out for him to get through a long enigmatic tale about a bird who talks in six languages. I’m sure that Ireland has done what can be
done with breathing credibility into Annette, who is more inclined to wax poetic on the stars, the earth, and the wind, than she is to spark her somewhat ordained but minimally imposed romantic interest in the marginally interesting Baptiste.
As the scoundrel Mathias, Marcoux is never at a loss for words, even to bravely submitting during one of his lengthier contemplations before committing another dastardly deed, "This is boring. I’m boring you!" Having seen and admired other plays by Rebeck, including "The Butterfly Connection," "Bad Dates," "The Family of Mann," and "Spike Heels," "The Bells" seems uncharacteristically dense as well as disappointing. Emily Mann’s direction appears to be considerate of its
lofty and expressionistic aspirations. Just don’t expect "The Bells" to offer more than some droning in your ears.
The Bells, the Matthews Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place.
609-258-2787. Drama. $33 to $48. Through April 10.