Monday, September 18, 2017

On the Shore of the Wide World: Still Life

Mary McCann and Leroy McClain in On the Shore of the Wide World.(Photo: Ahron R. Foster)

On the Shore of the Wide World, receiving its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company, is the English playwright Simon Stephens’s exploration of the effects of a tragic accident on a family in a Manchester town in 2004. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Holmes (Wesley Zurick) is hit by a motorist and killed. His death drives his father, Peter (C.J. Wilson) and his mother, Alice (Mary McCann) apart and exacerbates the tensions between them and Peter’s parents, Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown) as well as bringing to light the unsettling qualities in their relationship. Shortly before he was killed, Christopher walked in on his alcoholic grandfather strong-arming his grandmother and, in dismay, confided in his older brother Alex (Ben Rosenfield), whom he adored. The aftermath of the boy’s death and the evident crumbling of his parents’ marriage drive Alex to move to London with his new girlfriend, Sarah (Tedra Millan). Meanwhile both Peter and Sarah, who have so much difficulty communicating with each other, are drawn – not romantically but out of a need for confidants – to other people. Peter, who restores old houses, has been hired by the pregnant Susan (Amelia Workman), and she’s the first person outside the family with whom he shares the story of Christopher’s death. (This conversation also marks the first time the audience hears about it, for reasons I can’t quite work out; this choice doesn’t seem to enhance the drama.) Stranger – and more intriguing – is the friendship that grows up between Alice and John (Leroy McClain), the driver of the car that knocked Christopher down on his bike. John’s attempt to reach out to the mother of the boy he inadvertently killed and her responding to him (reluctantly at first) are reminiscent of part of the plot of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, though here it develops in a different direction.

This play isn’t much like either of the others I know by Stephens, his extraordinary adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which put him on the map) or his two-hander Heisenberg, which appeared in New York last season. On the Shore of the Wide World is more in the kitchen-sink style of British dramas of the fifties and sixties, and though it’s cannily worked out, I found it pretty dreary (and, at two hours and forty minutes, overlong). However, I’m reasonably certain that a more effective production would have brought out more in the text. Neil Pepe’s staging is stiff and awkward, and it lacks rhythm – perhaps in part because the actors generally don’t manage the Manchester accents very well. The performances are erratic. Almost everyone on the stage has his or her moments, and Blair Brown has more than just moments: she’s cobbled together a plausible and complex character. In one of the best scenes, she confronts her daughter-in-law, complaining that she’s not providing Peter with the emotional support he needs in the wake of the loss of his younger boy. Ellen’s insensitivity to Alice’s own grief is shocking; it’s as if she hadn’t registered that Alice was grieving too. But you can also see the primal maternal defense of her son – who is so furious when he hears what she said to Alice that he shows up at his parents’ house late at night to berate her – as well as she toughness and obstinacy that have enabled her to put up with her own husband.

Brown shows us all those layers, and her performance, unlike Wilson’s or McCann’s, Rosenfield’s or Maloney’s doesn’t repeat itself during the long course of the evening. I wonder if On the Shore of the Wide World reads better than it plays (at least at the Atlantic Theater). You couldn’t accuse Stephens of simplifying his characters or of predictable dramaturgy; he’s not a writer who operates by any set of conventions – note the fact that the three plays I’ve seen by him are in distinctly different styles. But the flatness of the show made me impatient, and I wasn’t moved.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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