MIDNIGHT SUN by Maja Ardal, directed by Andy McKim and Patricia Vanstone, with Paul Braunstein, Matthew Edison, Nicky Guadagni, Holly Lewis, Jeff Madden and Kari Matchett. Presented by the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman) and the National Arts Centre. Runs to February 25, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $23-$29, Sunday pwyc, stu/srs discounts. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNN at its heart, and that heart is very large, Maja Ardal's new play, Midnight Sun, is about women, romance, shame, choices and freedom. It's like an Icelandic version of an Alice Munro story. And it's been unjustly dismissed by other critics. Set in the small Icelandic town of Strandvik in 1942, the play shows what happens when a group of American soldiers occupies the town and disturbs the cool equilibrium between the town's men and women.
The beautiful Prila (Kari Matchett) and her slightly disturbed younger sister Sissa (Holly Lewis) are obsessed with all things American, from movies -- they dress up like glamorous film stars -- to music. Their embittered mother, Hildur (Nicky Guadagni), encourages Prila's relationship with the stiff America-bound scholar Petur (Matthew Edison), even though Prila was once in love with Petur's brother Kari (Jeff Madden), an alcoholic jazz musician with a violent streak.
When the U.S. soldiers arrive and try to set up a dance party for themselves and the town's women -- with Kari and Prila heading the big band -- the town's men, headed by Petur, are outraged and promise to print the partying women's names in the local newspaper to shame them.
There's a lot of plot in the play, and several overlapping stories, but Ardal -- along with directors Andy McKim and Patricia Vanstone -- sets things up efficiently. Sure, some stories get lost, particularly one concerning the mythical Icelandic "hidden folk." But there are also subtleties. Look at the understated way we learn that most women work at the factory. Or how a character comes alive -- becomes more seductive, more romantic -- while playing an instrument.
Essentially, Midnight Sun is a plea for romance in a culture that has no translation for the words "I love you" when spoken by a man to a woman.
The performances are fine. Matchett's Prila is confident and assured, Guadagni rides over a couple of difficult monologues with ease, and Lewis's Sissa, like a Carson McCullers heroine, evokes tragedy and comedy at once. The men are given lesser roles, but Paul Braunstein's U.S. soldier is likeable and has a showstopping percussion number, while Edison's professor is a complicated mix of insecurity and arrogance.
The show's climax is suspenseful, and the conclusion appropriately ambiguous, with music throughout nicely underscoring the play's themes of romance and freedom.