Image: Gary Norman
Isaac Lamb

Last week, with an Arctic front pushing temperatures down to -38 degrees, International Falls, Minnesota, was one of the coldest spots in America. That's not uncommon: the bleak border town bills itself as “the Icebox of the Nation.” But with his play International Falls, set almost entirely in a motel room heated against the deathly freeze outside, Minnesotan playwright Thomas Ward has created a piece of theater that's crackling with life: the comedic, the tragic, and all that lies between.

The world-premiere work, presented by CoHo Productions as part of the Fertile Ground Festival, opens on a horrifically awkward hook-up between the play's two characters. Tim (Isaac Lamb) is a stand-up comedian who's supposed to be mediocre (though the stand-up interludes that break up the play's main action are very funny) on what passes for a tour at this point in his 16-year career: a handful of gigs at colleges and hotel bars across the upper Midwest. Like too many comics, Tim is a sad person. His wife has left him, taking their son with her, and in his professional life, he is jaded, dejected, and bored. For Tim, telling jokes is no longer, as it should be, like walking out into the cold butt-naked and laughing with everybody about it; it's like cranking the thermostat, sitting at the window, and sticking your tongue out at the bundled people outside. Dee (Laura Faye Smith) is a front-desk clerk at the motel and an aspiring comedian whose heretofore unremarkable life has been wrenched from normalcy by her discovery that her husband has been cheating on her. On the evening International Falls is set, Tim and Dee are just looking for a little companionship. But as it progresses from an impersonal sex act; to drinks and free-flowing, wide-ranging conversation; to a heavily foreshadowed but nonetheless powerful climax, the night turns out to be a more important one for the two than we—and perhaps even they—realize.

Particularly for a world premiere, Ward's script is impressive. The playwright's dialogue is uncommonly realistic, reflecting how two smart, funny, and honest people might really talk—cracking jokes, making awkward missteps, saving each other from awkward missteps by cracking jokes. Meanwhile, Ward himself deftly maneuvers around the many potential missteps of his difficult limited structure. Despite the fact that plot points must be reached, and the relationship between Tim and Dee advanced, within the confines of a small room over just 90 minutes, Ward doesn't overuse exposition or rush the action. The finale of the playwright's routine is his trickiest move of all, risking cliché and a too-marked shift in tone, but Ward lands the climax with grace.

That isn't to give the realizers of Ward's script short shrift. Local Brandon Woolley, who's assistant-directed shows for Portland Center Stage, Broadway Rose, and Live on Stage, makes a noteworthy Portland directorial debut, while Isaac Lamb, a Third Rail Repertory Theatre core company member, and Laura Faye Smith embody the protagonist pair with dynamic complexity and seamless authenticity.

International Falls runs through February 16. Ward, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a recovered stand-up comic, as familiar as anybody with how comedy can be a blade to be either brandished or fallen upon. In International Falls, through one night in the lives of two humorists, he explores both sides of this double-edged sword with a razor-sharp sense for dialogue, tone, and, of course, how to get a laugh.

For more on Portland arts and culture, sign up for our weekly On The Town newsletter, subscribe to our RSS feed, and follow us on Twitter @PoMoArt. Visit our Arts & Entertainment Calendar for our editors’ event picks.