"Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire...." Although quoted to near-death since its first publication over seventy years ago, poet Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" is probably still the most naked appraisal of mortal fear. Lines and lines of lyric, hundreds of novels, thousands of films, countless coffee house rats breathing smoke ruminate over the risks of taking risks, but the question remains, at heart, compelling: Is it worse to go down in flames, or to freeze slowly in place?

In North Street, playwright Aaron Thomas asks again. Having deftly fashioned a group of characters from his native north (specifically Vermont), Thomas equips each of them with a gloomy wit, aimless outlook, and the sort of passion that always vents itself in noisy, sporadically articulate, aching ache. The playwright's blunt sense of this ache--and of these characters--reopens the familiar fire/ice question like a forgotten wound. And as funny as Thomas' dialog is, there is no way to dodge the wounded in North Street.

The play catches its characters in mid-fall. Randy, an out of work "rocker" played by Deron Bos, catches sight of the first sign of spring: Justine Callahan (Peggy Gannon), marching audaciously across main street, flouting single digit temperatures in fire engine red jeans and a white leather jacket. Not only is Justine the hottest woman in town, but she's been laying low with Cassidy (who stays out of sight), a middle-aged rock guitarist and Randy's near-mythical hero. Randy lies low in limbo himself, sleeping on the floor of his friend Jerry's (Matt Ford) place and waiting for his girlfriend Fern (Mara Hesed) to take him back. Meanwhile, Jerry's nursing an unrequited crush on Linda (Tina Kunz) and a gash from a random attack with a two-by-four. Fern just wants a room of her own, and Linda's looking for a ticket out of the frozen north. When she spies that ticket heading south with Cassidy's crazy daughter, Cary (Sarah Gunnell), she finds the price a little too rich for her blood. Like the others, she's left cold.

The plot's thin, but that's because North Street runs on pacing and atmosphere. Thomas and director Kip Fagan etch out a moody backwoods world, supported by A. J. Epstein's chilled light and set designer Jeffrey T. Cook's apartment walls of cracking ice. Fagan carefully paces the script through its sudden bursts of momentum and slow wind down, but he's confident enough to let the characters do most of the driving.

He leaves the driving in good hands, too. Ford and Bos both possess a dead aim, pulling off two of the truest performances I've seen in a long time. While Ford's Jerry seems confounded by fate's little cruelties, Bos' Randy is consumed by them. In perfect counterpoint, the naïve escapist Jerry floats on his feet, drifting dreamily back in the ice with a good-natured whimper. Randy, on the other hand, sees glory in going out with a bang. He stays low to the ground, his pelvis thrust forward and his lips sliding slowly over his dialog--he's sex in a stupor. The exchanges between Jerry and Randy are easily the most entertaining in the show.

Hesed's endearing portrait of Fern is also packed with trapped energy--she's a vaguely neurotic kid in perpetual hibernation. Gunnell appears only briefly, but even after she exits, she never quite leaves the room. The character of Cary just shows up, gives a cold shoulder or two, and sets fires in her wake. Only Kunz as Linda and Gannon as Justine seem out of step. Between grimacing broadly, waving her arms and stomping on and off stage, Kunz is too busy acting to slide into Linda's skin. And Gannon simply can't get comfortable--her idea of sexy audacity is limited to clamping her hands on her hips and tossing her hair--a lot. Those tight red jeans shouldn't have to do all the work.

But these missteps are minor; the Printer's Devil company's tight production still locates North Street's distinct northern edge. "But if it had to perish twice," concluded Frost, "I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great, and would suffice." Thomas' entrenched, isolated North Street, much like Frost's New Hampshire, doubles as an all-purpose middle ground--or testing ground--somewhere between a fiery end and the endless ice.

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