Alaska's Yukon Territory is not a land for happy endings. Its mountain ranges and plains are blanketed by snow and darkness and an enduring arctic wind that, for nine months out of any given year, will freeze your eyelids shut if you pause for a second to remember the sun. It is a place where even horses commit suicide, but it has one treasure bright enough to attract the rare, desperate dreamer willing to claw through miles of frozen earth in search of his happy ending: gold.
So begins Theresa Rebeck's The Bells, a mystery—or, more appropriately, a ghost story—set in a one-room inn stocked with nothing but booze and eggs in the middle of God's freezer.
The plot unfurls simply, as a good ghost story should: Drunks are drinking, the wind is howling, and a successful innkeeper counts his money and watches as his only daughter delicately comes into heat. Lo! Who should appear at their doorstep but a tall, dark, handsome stranger searching for a Chinaman who'd struck a small fortune in gold and then vanished from the area 18 years ago? Outside, a range of eerily glowing, snow-capped mountains (created with draped layers of white gauze—the set design, by Montana Tippett, is something I'd like in my home) stands as a constant reminder that surviving in the Yukon is a triumph; thriving in it is almost obscene.
Strawberry Theatre Workshop has earned a reputation for provocative plays, striking sets, and strong casts (the company won a Stranger Genius Award and has been nominated for TPS Gregory Awards for outstanding production three years in a row), and The Bells is no exception: The ghost of Lin Xuifei, played by Jose Abaoag, is as persistently chilling onstage as a telltale heart. Peter Crook is equally riveting as the innkeeper, Mathias, a man tortured by an old secret and the looming question "What does it mean, in this crushing place, to be human?"
His daughter, Annette (Brenda Joyner), is his ready answer. She is young, proud, and ready to fall in love—all Mathias's hopes and dreams wrapped into one prickly, ovulating package.
But it's two broke prospectors and one broken whore (John Quince Smith, Galen Joseph Osier, and Lisa Viertel) who best portray the Yukon's brutal brand of humanity—i.e., good people reduced to greedy, nurturing thieves. Even loners can't survive in this environment alone, and as a consequence, secrets are rarer than roses and everyone becomes glancingly responsible for each other's actions. Reality is avoidable. Morality is subjective. Drunks raucously drown themselves with stolen booze to stave off dying from the cold.
Sadly, there is a weak link—Patrick Allcorn's accent as the handsome French-Canadian stranger Baptiste is more appalling than watching your mother strip burlesque. There were moments I wished he were a mime. But, as Mathias argues, one moment in time doesn't define the sum of a life, and neither should Allcorn's clubfooted accent define the play. There are some truly magnificent moments in The Bells—hilarious ditties about fucking, performances from the most convincing drunks I've ever had the pleasure of not being related to, a riveting slow-motion death, and aurora borealis that will take your breath away.
But its lasting magic (and/or reverberating horror) is its stripping away of your autonomy and sticking you out there in the Yukon's endless, lightless winter, if only for a few hours. When the house lights come up, you can't help taking a good, hard look at that icy mountain range and then a good, hard look at your date and wonder: "Am I making good life choices? Is this someone I could happily be trapped in a time-share condo with if hell froze over? Or should I remove my travel hatchet and carve an emergency exit out of the side of this Volvo?" Enjoy the car ride home.