There are some bone-chilling moments in the McCarter Theater Center’s world premiere production of “The Bells,” a thrilling Yukon murder mystery that gets hopelessly snowbound in its numbing second act. Theresa Rebeck’s play was inspired by a murky 19th century melodrama that was in the repertoire of legendary Victorian actor Henry Irving for more than three decades. Set in the waning days of the great Alaskan gold rush, the drama includes eerie flashbacks to a tragic event of 18 years earlier.
A detective story of sorts, the play offers a needling first act when a Canadian bounty hunter arrives at a remote inn to probe the disappearance of a Chinese miner. The trail leads to a mountain lodge and its proprietor, Mathias (Ted Marcoux), despite the fact that evidence appears to point to a nameless crime without a victim.
The title refers to the prospector’s tinkling souvenirs given to an innkeeper’s daughter, and occasional ringing serves as a ghostly reminder of the missing man.
Lengthy rhetoric and a murky confessional dominate the second act when Mathias, a cunning rogue in fear of detection, is ultimately destroyed by his own remorse. In a revealing soliloquy, the innkeeper reflects on the nightly dance of stars, his personal greed and the ultimate fate of the Chinese miner.
Performances are forceful and vividly defined. Marcoux’s guilt-ridden innkeeper is rich with a brooding edge of danger. Christopher Innvar is a persuasive investigator, and there is a stoic portrait by Pun Bandhu of the doomed miner, who drops in from time to time with his “sorrowful friends of cold and rain.”
Marin Ireland is a feisty barmaid, and the grizzly, drunken prospectors played by Paul Butler, Fiona Gallagher and Michael McCarty provide some rowdy humor.
Rebeck’s poetic text is often eloquent but contains ponderous descriptions of a big and distant landscape, the black nights, the merciless wind that cuts like a knife and the “cold that reaches right down to the heart.”
McCarter artistic director Emily Mann has staged the wintry drama with cinematic force and invested the play with the sprawling spirit of Jack London’s adventurous wilderness.
Eugene Lee’s set of a Yukon general store and lodge is backed by a snow-covered landscape stretching into the night and mountains peaked in dusky white, establishing a vivid atmosphere from the start.
Darron L. West’s unnerving windswept sound design creates a convincing chill. Costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s rough threads may not keep out the cold, but they fit the Klondike climate comfortably.