Saturday, March 23, 2024

"Apples in Winter" at Gremlin Theatre

Food is comfort, food is family, food is community. We like to joke about what our last meal would be, listing our favorite foods. But in Gremlin Theatre's new production of the solo play Apples in Winter, it's no joke. The entire story plays out in real time as we watch a woman make an apple pie as her son's requested last meal. It's a brutal and devastating look at the effects of addiction, violence, the prison system, and the death penalty on individuals and families. Gremlin has turned their stage into a kitchen, and Angela Timberman not only gives a heart-wrenching performance, she also literally prepares and bakes a pie before our eyes (and noses). It's a triumph of performance, direction, and design that casts a mesmerizing spell that's difficult to wake up from. When the lights went down at the end of the opening night performance, there was a moment of silence and a few heavy sighs before the applause broke out. See this devastatingly beautiful play at Gremlin Theatre now through April 7.

Angela Timberman (photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography)
In the time it takes to make a mini apple pie (about 90 minutes in this case), Miriam tells us her story. She's in the kitchen of the prison where her son is on death row for a crime to be revealed. After 22 years of one-hour Sunday visits, the day of his execution has finally arrived. Robert's last meal request is a piece of his mom's apple pie (for the record, my mom's apple pie would also be my last meal request). They of course wouldn't allow her to make it in her own kitchen for fear of what she might put in it, but they let her make it on site with prison-supplied ingredients. Except for the apples, which Miriam searched for in grocery stores and only found sub-par ones, this being winter and not apple season. She makes the crust from scratch, cuts the apples, puts it in a working oven, sets the timer, and cleans up while waiting for the pie to bake. Maybe this sounds boring, but it's a clever device by Iowa-based playwright Jennifer Fawcett to frame the story in real time and in a real and tangible slice of life (pun intended).*

Through the pie-making, we learn about Miriam and Robert, what a sweet little boy he was, how she nursed the apple tree in their yard until it bore abundant fruit, and their September ritual of making apple pie. Rituals can be comforting, they can be a thread back to a happier time, they can be a buoy in open water, as Miriam says. She hopes that her son finds comfort in the familiar flavors, that he feels his mother's love and presence. She finds comfort in the ritual herself, in remembering their life "before." But she also uses the ritual to say goodbye to her son, for one last final time. Miriam is not always likable throughout the play, but she is very real and human and relatable.*

Angela Timberman (photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography)
I often think of Angela Timberman first as a comedic actor (and director), but she's always been the kind of actor that can crack me up and break my heart in the space of a breath. There's not much cracking up here (maybe a moment or two of levity in remembering better days), but lots of heart-breaking. She's so real, so in the moment, expressing all of the emotions from sadness to anger to frustration to devastation to acceptance. She cries real tears as she carries us along on this difficult and emotional journey.

Angela Timberman (photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography)
Under the expert direction of Brian Balcom the story plays out in its own time, with long pauses and even several minutes of silence and stillness, a rare and beautiful thing in theater. It's worth noting that the last time I saw this play* it was 75 minutes long; those extra 15 minutes here give the story, characters, and emotions a little more room to breathe. The moments of silence allow us to see even more the genius of Angela as wordless thoughts play out across her face. Subtle sound and lighting design add to the storytelling but don't draw attention away from it; you almost don't notice it but it's there and it does its job, from the ticking of the clock, or a slight brightening or dulling of the lights as we move in and out of remembrances. Gremlin's resident technical director Carl Schoenborn has constructed a real working kitchen on stage, with a stainless-steel counter in the back and a center island where Miriam does her preparations, with industrial cooking equipment, a stocked refrigerator, and working convection oven. It's all very realistic, putting us right there in the prison kitchen with Miriam, and perfectly timed as we watch the 90 minutes literally tick by on the overhead clock. (Set and lighting design by Carl Schoenborn, sound design by Montana Johnson, prop and costume design by Sarah Bahr.)

Prison reform, the death penalty, the addiction crisis, sweet little boys who grow up to be violent men, all these relevant and timely issues are laid bare through the very human story of this one fictional family, all in the time it takes to bake a pie. The play (and the pie) is cleverly constructed, and perfectly executed by the team at Gremlin.

Apples in Winter continues at Gremlin Theatre at Vandalia Towers in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood through April 7. Dinner-and-a-show tip: Gremlin is in the same building as Lake Monster Brewing Company, where you can enjoy a beverage and order food from King Coil Spirits next door to be delivered right to your table.