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Theatre in Review: Indian Summer (Playwrights Horizons)

Joe Tippett, Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Indian Summer, playwright Gregory S. Moss imagines a sunny, sandy beach in Rhode Island and populates it with four characters, each in his or her own way a kind of displaced person. He organizes three of them into a romantic triangle that will have life-changing consequences, and he quietly lays bare the profound grief at the core of the fourth. The beach image is highly apposite: The view is lovely, but the sands are constantly shifting and under the water's surface unseen phenomena lurk.

Daniel is an adolescent -- at 15 or 16, he looks more like a large boy than a young man on the road to maturity -- who has been deposited with his grandfather, George. Daniel's mother is MIA, and, despite George's assurances that everything is fine, Daniel is getting pretty nervous about it. This, I'm sorry to say, is a case of a playwright putting his worst foot forward, for this setup has a nagging sense of unreality about it: Can Daniel's mother really not be reached? Do neither he nor his mother own a cell phone? Why is Daniel's father never mentioned? Why, if we're supposed to feel Daniel's sense of exile, has Moss been so vague about the details of the boy's life? All of this constitutes a credibility roadblock that you must mentally circumvent if you are going to enjoy Indian Summer.

It's worth the effort to do so, however, because Moss introduces Izzy, a brassy young lady of Italian-American extraction, a local who has contempt for "summer people" etched into her DNA. She has shown up only to retrieve her little brother's sand pail, which, at the moment, happens to be in Daniel's hands. The sane thing would be to hand it over, but Daniel, feeling lonely and abandoned, fights back, causing Izzy to unleash her formidable Sicilian fury. When Daniel makes the mistake of assuming that there is no difference between Sicilians and Italians, Izzy explodes: "Oh man, that is so goddam insulting. I have uncles who would cut your fuckin' throat for sayin' that." Daniel, who gives as good as he gets, responds to Izzy's claim that she owns the beach: "If anyone can own a beach....then it sure doesn't belong to a buncha johnny-come-lately Euro outcasts....Native Americans were here long before your shitty, degenerate, chromosome-damaged ancestors." Unused to being spoken to like this, Izzy enlists her muscle-bound boyfriend, Jeremy, a self-described practitioner of a "Christian-orientated martial art of my own making" to bully the recalcitrant Daniel -- but, clearly, this is a case of love at first sight.

Following these hostilities, Daniel and Izzy begin spending time together, and it is to Moss' credit -- and also to the thoughtful direction of Carolyn Cantor -- that we come to believe that this oddest of couples is really a union of like-minded souls. Izzy isn't your average townie -- she possesses an unusual intelligence and a willingness to learn. As she witheringly informs Daniel, she is an autodidact. The expectation is that she will leave high school and marry Jeremy, but she harbors ambitions of breaking free and finding a different kind of life for herself. When Jeremy, fearing that he is losing Izzy, tries to accelerate the schedule that ends in the Wedding March, Daniel encourages him, thinking it will scare Izzy away. Instead, it sets off a chain of events that has deeply unintended consequences.

Meanwhile, George wanders on the margins, telling Izzy, "Go back down to the beach now and try not to get pregnant on the way home," and offering eccentric encomiums to the natural beauty of the ocean. But he is also deeply stricken with grief over his late wife, and, in the play's diciest scene, he persuades Izzy to don the late woman's dress and assume her role in a conversation with him. It's a forced idea that, badly handled, could turn dreadfully mawkish. But so carefully written is the sequence, and so delicately acted by Jonathan Hadary, as George, and Elise Kibler, as Izzy, that it functions as an understated bit of stage magic, especially when Izzy, her imagination captivated by this exercise, describes from inside the experience of passing away.

Indian Summer is an odd, but affecting, one -- a wisecracking romantic comedy and a meditation on loss, a surprisingly tough-minded look at the fragility of relationships, and a sometimes illogically plotted tale that nevertheless makes clear how seemingly small choices can lead to unexpected results. The production benefits enormously from the skilled, sensitive performances of its four-person cast. As Daniel, Owen Campbell gets laughs simply by turning and staring at the audience, as if to say, Can you believe this is happening to me? But he is also touching when tentatively reaching out to Kibler's Izzy. The latter rams home her comic insults in molto vivace fashion, but she makes something really revelatory out of the scene in which she role-plays with George. The scene in which Daniel and Izzy sit, back to back, on the beach, imagining running into each other many years in the future, is eloquently infused with unspoken feelings. Joe Tippett, who impressed in Airline Highway and Familiar, makes Jeremy into both a goofily strutting bully and a sad sack who realizes that Izzy is his one shot at something substantial. Hadary applies his seamless technique to the role of George, earning a big laugh simply by crossing the stage and announcing, "I have nothing to add at this juncture," and, later, revealing, bit by bit, the loneliness gnawing at his soul.

As is usually the case with Playwrights Horizons productions, the physical production is aces: Dane Laffrey's beach set (which reportedly required 15,000 pounds of sand) is both attractive and a little bit desolate; he also frames the stage in an attractive blonde wood proscenium. Eric Southern's lighting supplies several beautifully detailed time-of-day looks, most notably a pink-tinged sunrise. Kaye Voyce's costumes fit each character to a T. Stowe Nelson's sound design mixes various effects, including waves, airplanes, and fireworks, to evocative effect.

Indian Summer ends with order restored, after a fashion, but with the status quo hopelessly altered and a sense of loss in the air. It is seemingly a fragile thing, but it retains a tensile strength, thanks to his gift for observation. Moss doesn't go in for dramatic fireworks; instead he understands that the most profound emotional effects are felt beneath the surface. If you listen carefully, under the ocean's roar you can hear the sound of hearts breaking. -- David Barbour

(9 June 2016)

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