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Living large in the golden age

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As the Wasatch Front gears up to move from the colors of fall into the chill of winter, Salt Lake Acting Company is staging the regional premiere of a period romantic comedy-drama set during the same time frame in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

Joan Ackerman's "Ice Glen," directed by David Mong, takes place in 1919 on an estate that — like the Gilded Age it once represented — is fading into obscurity.

"It is a period piece," Mong said, "but ultimately it is also a romance, in the sense that a lot of what this play talks about are states of the heart.

"The older I get, I still enjoy the fall very much, even though it signals the coming of winter, and I hate snow and cold."

Mong echoes the dirgelike observations of one of the play's characters, Mrs. Roswell, the Irish cook who heralds the arrival of winter with such comments as, "I see fall as a brightly colored carpet leading to gloom."

The central plot revolves around Peter Woodburn, a senior editor at Atlantic Monthly magazine, visiting Stone Gate, a once-thriving "cottage" (really an estate), where he hopes to persuade reclusive poet Sarah Harding to allow him to publish three of her poems. Sarah is employed as a gardener by Dulce Bainbridge, a young widow whose husband squandered most of his wealth, leaving her in dire financial circumstances.

The play's title refers to a geological oddity on the estate, a glacial rock formation in a nearby glen that remains frozen year-round. The "Ice Glen" is also a metaphor for "all three of these essential characters, who are frozen in a particular moment emotionally," said Mong. "The play is about the effect they have on each other and their journey toward other possibilities."

During its heyday, according to Mong, Stone Gate had an "Upstairs, Downstairs" feel to it, but "... that has broken down a bit and Dulce and her small staff have started to pull together in the sense of a family dependent on one another."

Mong's cast includes Mark Gollaher (last seen at SLAC in "Beast on the Moon" during the company's 1996-97 season) as Woodburn, the editor; Alexandra Harbold as Dulce; Tracie Merrill as Sarah, the poet; Dee Macaluso as Mrs. Roswell, the cook; Don Glover as Grayson, a wise and insightful butler; and Josh Pierson as Denby, a mentally challenged young man orphaned in a fire, a 20-year-old with the mental acuity of a 10-year-old who was taken in by Dulce after his parents died.

Woodburn, Dulce and Sarah form a somewhat tenuous triangle. Dulce, who feels isolated at Stone Gate, is pleased to have a visitor from the city, bringing an air of urban excitement to the remote estate. But poetess Sarah finds Woodburn to be pompous and infuriating. She is outraged that he has even obtained three of her poems, which she considers deeply personal.

"Woodburn has become emotionally closed off because of a tragedy he suffered a couple of years before, and he is in for a rude awakening," said Mong. "Dulce has been eclipsed by all of her problems and ... she's kind of hermetically sealed from the life she really wants to be in. And Sarah is writing poems only for herself. A lot of this is simmering under the surface, and it's wonderful to watch these people circumnavigate what they want and none of them knowing exactly what they're after.

"What's interesting about this is that it takes place at the beginning of the end for the Gilded Age. They were living large, and it's starting to collapse."

Mong said that the production has also been an interesting challenge for scenery designer Keven Myhre. "The playwright suggests (scenes in) different rooms, but we can't build a mansion. The exterior — the Berkshire woods — is also a powerful force in this play. Keven has done some interesting things to suggest the different locales and the forest."

If you go

What: "Ice Glen"

Where: Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North

When: Wednesday through Dec. 3, various times

How much: $13-$34

Phone: 363-7522

Web site: www.saltlakeactingcompany.org

Preview performances: Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m.

Post-play discussion: Nov. 12, following the Sunday matinee (about 4:30 p.m.)

Forum: "Big Conversation," Nov. 19, 12:30 p.m. (prior to that day's matinee): "Creating New Realities: What Lingers in the Minds of Poets," with local poets Melissa Bond and Michael Sowder, and singer-songwriter Lisa Marie

E-mail: ivan@desnews.com