Writer Holly Johnson’s debut show is still contained in a simple reading, yet just the actors sitting in front of a replica of Pieter Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow” is surprisingly effective in transporting the audience, along with the characters, into the chilly depths of the canvas.
Sisters Abby (Vonessa Martin) and Bea (Brynn Baron) don’t get along. Abby is calculated and self-conscious. Bea is free-spirited and selfish. When the middle-aged women travel to Vienna in an attempt to reconcile their differences, they find themselves in a fantasy world when they’re literally sucked into the snowy scene of Bruegel’s famous work, where villagers skate on a distant pond and jagged mountains reach for the sky. This bizarre trip through time and space is accepted with only mild disbelief by each sister, and their differences become more pronounced in their reactions to the experience. Bea immediately falls for a hunter, Hans (Will Cotter). Inside of the painting, she no longer feels the pain in her leg that has recently caused her to use a cane. Abby is cold and uncomfortable, and wishes to return the safety of the museum.
Sisters in the Snow explores how two siblings can belong to completely separate worlds. Their disconnect begs the question: Must family always meet on common ground? Or should our first priority be our own happiness?
Baron and Martin work off each other in a way that makes each character, and their opposite, relatable. It’s easy to understand how Abby is irritated by her sister’s breezy beauty, and why Bea is exhausted by Abby’s emotional needs, despite her loving intentions. Elsa, a Viennese detective who is tasked with finding the women (played by the show’s director, Hester Schell) offers humor and further prodding into the potential power and role that art can play in our lives.
Hopefully Johnson’s sweet story about the struggles of sisterhood and the depth of art will see the full theater treatment in the future. For now, the talented cast is enough to help audience members get lost in the snow.
Fertile Ground runs until Jan. 29. For the full schedule, go to fertilegroundpdx.org. $50 festival passes, individual tickets available.