As the saying goes, every family has a secret.
Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s newest play, Winter’s Daughter, comes from a secret revealed to local barber Gino Chiarella by his grandfather. Written for the stage by Jesse Stong, the play is set in 1919 Italy and tells the story of Maria (Michaela Di Cesare) and Giuseppe (Ryan Bommarito), a couple who live on a farm with their four year old daughter, Rosie.
When a Jewish peddler (Amir Sám Nakhjavani) comes to stay over Christmas, his daughter Rina and Rosie become fast friends, and Maria hopes he will leave Rina at the farm while he travels. Then tragedy strikes, and Maria and Giuseppe must grapple with the complexities of family, love, and a choice that will echo for generations.
In addition to his work as the peddler, Nakhjavani turns in a memorably funny performance as the unreliable Giacomo, a friend of Giuseppe’s. Bommarito’s performance is the most hard-hitting, though, conveying a man who is deeply traumatized by WWI yet still gruffly loves his wife and daughter.
The set is spare but effective, evoking the family’s relative poverty and isolation, but it’s Jaclyn Turner’s stunning projections at the back of the stage that truly frame the show. They run throughout the entire play, depicting both the changing weather outside Maria and Giuseppe’s home and the evolving emotional states inside – snow falls in thick torrents, eventually transforming into flying birds and pillars of salt.
At times, the writing is thin – or at least, the world of the play feels thinly drawn. Giacomo’s purpose, for example, seems to be comic relief. That is, until the play’s second half, when he is suddenly deeply hurt by a lie Giuseppe tells. But the relationship between the two men hasn’t been fleshed out enough, and Giacomo’s pain feels somewhat disproportionate. This is evocative of a larger tonal problem: the second half of the play delves into so much darkness that it can feel like a different show. This is perhaps the goal, but the effect is so overwhelming that the emotions lose some of their impact.
Winter’s Daughter is strongest when slightly removed from reality. Director Emma Tibaldo guides the show skillfully in and out of metaphorical tangents, such as a poignant fable about birds who refuse to fly south, told by Maria throughout the play. Another symbolic flourish occurs after the play’s main tragedy in the form of an unnerving set transition, where Giuseppe’s movements become jerky, like he’s a puppet pulled by fate, forced to rearrange furniture. Alongside Turner’s projections, these moments deepen the mood, gesturing to something broader than the immediate story it’s telling: an effect of post-war trauma, repressed fears that only occasionally burst through the surface.
The play closes with a monologue about dreams by Giuseppe, wherein he tries to articulate the sense that something bad is on the horizon – a sense that causes him and his wife to make a crucial choice. Winter’s Daughter is a play about the things we do and do not have control over and the ways we carry on, gathering strength to make decisions that become stories we tell our grandchildren, so that they can tell someone else.
Tableau D’Hôte Theatre presents the World Premiere of
Winter’s Daughter by Jesse Stong
November 27th to December 8th, 2019
at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts Studio
(170 Côte-Ste-Catherine, Montreal, QC, H3W 1M)