Theater review: ‘Arctic Circle’ is a chaotic yet coherent romantic ride

By Nona Nelson 981-3402 for the Roanoke Times

 A strong cast and smart writing warms “The Arctic Circle (and a recipe for Swedish Pancakes),” now playing at Mill Mountain Theatre’s Waldron Stage in Roanoke.

The play, part of the Marginal Arts Festival, is a random series of events in a woman’s troubled love life.

Samantha Macher, a master’s of fine arts playwright at Hollins University and the playwright-in-residence at the SkyPilot Theatre in Los Angeles, takes her main character, Elin, on a chaotic ride through romance, from adolescence to college to adulthood, back and then forward again.

The disconnected string of events revolves around the immature but incurably romantic woman; at times comedic, at times poetic, but perpetually moving, Elin’s world is a blur of personal relationships that always seem to fall short of her expectations.

Susanna Young is Elin, an American woman of Swedish heritage with a passion for love, coffee and Swedish pancakes with lingonberry butter (the promised recipe for the pancakes is in the playbill, so be sure to get one at the door). The play has minimal staging — only a table, a bench and two chairs — and there are no props, so all the action relies the pantomime skills of Young and her two cast mates and the deft descriptions of the narrator.

Chad Runyon plays Elin’s emotionally vapid husband; Drew Dowdy plays her many boyfriends, her lone girlfriend, and a couple of baristas; Todd Ristau narrates. Shay Mullins provides musical accompaniment with a ukulele.

The actors do a splendid job of illustrating Elin’s entanglements. Young plays the part with the perfect mix of dramatic flair and comedic timing and reminds me, in appearance and talent, of actress Elisabeth Moss of television’s “The West Wing” and “Mad Men.”

Dowdy, an experienced local actor, is superb in his multiple roles that include men — Elin’s worthless high school boyfriend, her college crushes and an unavailable artist she lusts for — and women — Elin’s lesbian girlfriend as well as an American and a Swedish barista.

Runyon brings the right amount of chilly reserve to his role as Elin’s husband, and Ristau, dressed to match the lead character, keeps the story moving as Elin’s alter ego, the narrator.

Director Bob Moss’ pacing and Macher’s fresh dialogue draw the audience into Elin’s dysfunction. Ristau, as the omnipotent narrator, explains the transitions and adds a sense of time and context, so the randomness of the episodes, which could have easily digressed into chaos, flows smoothly into a coherent story.

While the play deals with serious topics of love, respect and trust, it is also funny — although I admit the part where I laughed the most occurred while Young is conversing in Swedish with Dowdy, because their accents reminded me of my favorite Muppet. Adult language and themes should be considered if parents want to bring young children to the remaining three performances.

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