Ice Glen – Director Interview

Sarah Harding (Susan Vanech) and Denby (Will Cohn)

"We're going faster... and faster... and faster..." Sarah Harding (Susan Vanech) and Denby (Will Cohn)

Ice Glen continues its critically acclaimed run Fridays and Saturdays February 12, 13, 19 and 20, Valentine’s Day, February 14 at 2:00 PM and February 21 at 2:00 PM. Directed by Ruth Anne Baumgartner, the imaginative staging envelops a lovely play with a cast of rich characters that leave you with a lot to think about. A recent interview with Ms. Baumgartner  gives a rare look at a director’s behind-the-scenes thought process:

An obvious first question, but what drew you to direct Ice Glen?

“I became more and more excited by the questions the play raises. Since I have been teaching writing and literature courses for most of my life, I was especially drawn to the central conflict: for whom does a poet write – and to whom does a poem belong? Like the famous tree falling in the forest, does art need an audience in order to exist? And I was excited at the chance to work with actors on a play where more is unsaid than said: that is, a lot of the play happens in the subtext.”

The play presents an interesting ethical debate between the rights of an artist and the “free will” of art; what is your take on this issue at the heart of the play?

“As a desk-drawer poet myself, I sympathize with Sarah’s desire to share her poems only with people she trusts. But a creative work is a complex phenomenon that, when finished, is entitled to a life of its own. I teach English today because many years ago I fell completely, passionately, and permanently in love with literature. A great work of art – poetry, drama, fiction, painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater – embodies a moment of vision, and that vision helps us see more clearly. It helps us understand the world in a new way, helps us remember and celebrate what it means to be human beings, helps us to feel or to give a name to feelings we already have. In poetry, we also celebrate the power and sheer delight of language. Just remember how many people posted poems on the hoardings surrounding the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11. How many of our loved dead are eulogized by means of a favorite poem? How many courtships involve the sharing of sonnets? Think of the times in your life when words from a poem have given you solace, or joy, or delight, and be thankful that all of those poems did not remain locked in the desk drawers of reticent writers.”

The title of the play – Ice Glen – is it a real place, or is it symbolic? Would you discuss a little of the imagery of the play in relation to its plot?

“The play is mostly set in western Massachusetts. I knew Lenox, Mount Greylock, Pleasant Valley, and the Housatonic River were real. Ice Glen is described as a ravine with crevices so deep and dark that the ice in them is never reached by the sun and consequently never melts, not even in the summer, is certainly not impossible; but at the time, its appropriateness as a central image for the play was interesting enough for me. Subsequent investigation led me straight to descriptions of Ice Glen, a real place complete with real ice.”

“In fact, Joan Ackermann originally wrote Ice Glen for Shakespeare and Company, a company based in Lenox and performing on the grounds of four Berkshire “cottages,” including the house Edith Wharton helped design and decorate and lived in for some years. The company rented her home, The Mount, as a performance space for over twenty years; they also performed in another of the cottages, Springlawn Mansion. Ice Glen was written in part as a fond farewell to Springlawn when the property, too costly to maintain, was sold and the company moved into larger, new facilities. The play celebrates this environment. But of all the features of the local landscape, Ice Glen is the best choice for a title and a focal point: part of Shakespeare & Company’s mission statement reads, “The Company believes there is a direct relationship between the development of the human mind and the landscape a human being inhabits.” The main character of the play is a poet who does not want to share her work with the public, and one of the two plotlines follows her struggle with the idea of opening up. And she’s not the only one in the play who has locked something away inside—every character has something frozen deep down, waiting for the right kind of warmth to unlock it. So my short answer to ‘Is Ice Glen a real place, or is it symbolic?’ is ‘Yes.’

The play is set in 1919 – post Gilded Age, post World War I – Are there any references to “real” people and events in the year 1919?

“Astonishingly, there are NO references to the Great War, although surely even the wealthy in the Berkshires were aware that it happened and that, in 1919, it had just ended! Indeed, Edith Wharton, who is prominently mentioned in the play, was actively and passionately engaged during the War in aiding French and Belgian refugees and visiting—and sending reports from—the fighting at the Front. This would have been about the same time that, according to the play, she was dining with the Bainbridges and becoming interested in Sarah Harding’s poems. By 1919, Wharton had taken up permanent residence in France, returning to the United States only once, in 1923, to accept an honorary degree from Yale.”

“Her home in the Berkshires, The Mount, was built and furnished according to principles she developed with, and published with, an architect friend—an American aesthetic to replace the heavy ornamental clutter of the Victorian period, a more spacious grace.”

“The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine that wants to publish Sarah Harding’s poems, is of course a real magazine, founded in 1857 by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Francis H. Underwood, plus a few others, and still going. The Editor of The Atlantic Monthly at the time of the play was Ellery Sedgewick, who was responsible for moving it to national prominence. Under his editorship the magazine published more short stories than poetry. But he is not the Senior Editor in Ice Glen: that is Peter Woodburn (not that far from “sedge-wick,” I suppose!), and the fictional character does not fully share the real man’s preferences.”

Is the play a comedy or a drama? Or both?

“The play is listed as a ‘comedy,’ and I think this categorization does it and the audience a disservice. It is a comedy in that it has a happy ending, with problems worked out; and certainly some lines and events of the play are bound to evoke laughter. But actually calling it a comedy invites the audience to expect a play the point of which is laughter, and that is not the case. This is an engrossing human drama that, like life, has its moments of laughter – and moments of pain. It’s a play that appeals to the mind and the heart: that’s the best I can do.”

Would you elaborate a bit on the poetry of the play – is it a theme, or is it incorporated in the dialogue?

“A student of mine once defined ‘poetry’ as ‘something that says one thing but means something else.’ While I would quarrel with that as a definition, it is—or would be, if the student had actually been expressing something other than mere frustration—an insight. Certainly in this sense the play is poem-like, in that most of what is important in it is implied rather than expressed. Ackermann’s language is consciously mannered and elaborate, giving us the flavor of the play’s period; it is also poetic in a number of ways, from the poignant fragments of Dulce to the elegant and passionate verses of Sarah (verses we never get to hear, by the way), to the colorfully expressive language of Mrs. Roswell, the Irish cook.

“Thanks to Emily Dickinson, we tend to think that “reclusive” is somehow not a surprising adjective for “poet,” and Sarah Harding fits the word. But J.D. Salinger, whose recent death left countless mourners, was a prose writer, and he was reclusive in the ways Sarah is: not antisocial but very private, writing for an audience of one (or a few), satisfied to make the art and unwilling to make it public. So it’s not just poets.”

You mentioned that it was reminiscent of Chekhov – would you elaborate?

“When I first studied Chekhov in college I really couldn’t believe he called his plays “comedies,” especially since half the lines seemed to begin with the direction ‘Weeping.’ There’s not a lot of weeping in Ice Glen, but, as I said before, it’s hardly what we used to call a thigh-slapper. If you let yourself imagine that Sarah and Mr. Woodburn fall in love after the play ends, then you might call the play a romantic comedy, since they begin very much not in love—but the playwright ends the play with a mutual smile, not a passionate kiss or a wedding, so you may be making the play something it’s not if you imagine those things happen later. Chekhov’s characters generally find themselves in a situation threatened by loss of something dear to them. Each character is odd in his or her own way, but they all seem to accept this. The mansion is falling down around them—or the cherry orchard is being sold and cut down—and they struggle to find a way to keep their ideas of themselves intact, their relationships stable, their lives meaningful according to their own definitions. They talk a lot but reveal less than we would like. Most of them finish the play by registering their losses and going on. Ice Glen feels like this kind of play. Once the show is over I will have time to reread some Chekhov and test my impression!”

Ice Glen’s runs Friday and Saturday February 12, 13, 19 and 20 at 8:00 PM, and Sundays February 14 and

21 at 2:00 PM. Tickets $14 – $18. Call the box office for reservations at (203) 226-1983, or go to for directions.

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