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Theatre in Review: We Live by the Sea (Patch of Blue/59E59)

Alexandra Brain, Tom Coliandris. Photo: Kate Pardey

The young artists who make up the British theatre company Patch of Blue are talented and gutsy; they aren't afraid to probe deeply, and if, in doing so, they ride the audience's nerves, so be it. We Live by the Sea focuses on an adolescent who functions, precariously, on the autism spectrum. Unlike The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which puts us inside the head of its autistic leading character, We Live by the Sea is brutally honest about the toll taken on those who care for Katy, a fifteen-year-old girl who, in her need for constant attention, is methodically hollowing out the soul of her sister, Hannah. This isn't a tidy play, but it's a bracing one.

Hannah and Katy live in a seaside town in Yorkshire. Katy is a perplexing combination of the whimsical and the harrowing. She can illuminate 59E59's Theater B with her smile as she frolics with her imaginary dog, Paul Williams, and spins stories about princesses and knights. But her life is governed by ironclad rules: Meeting someone for the first time, she must tap on the person's shoes. Swearing is verboten; so is touching. Crowds are to be avoided at all costs. If these and other strictures are breached, she will collapse into fits of screaming, sometimes beating herself with a fury that is fearsome to behold.

This is the situation that Hannah, also eighteen, is left to manage on her own. The girls' mother bailed when it became apparent that Katy wouldn't be normal and hasn't been heard from since. Their father, retired from the navy, tended to Katy with unusual tenderness and skill, but he has recently died. The available resources are pitifully thin. The public school that the sisters attend has no real support system for autistic students; Katy is forced to make do, bearing the taunts and physical blows of the other students. (It's no wonder that she is terrified of having to make a class presentation.) Hannah has been accepted into college, but, as she says with remarkable understatement, "it isn't convenient right now." Money is so tight that they get a mercy discount from the local fish-and-chips shop.

Into this situation walks Ryan, also eighteen, who has recently moved to town with his mother. Thrown together with Katy and Hannah, he becomes a kind of honorary third member of the household. Katy blossoms under his attention, reveling in the kindness that is so often denied her. Hannah is drawn to him, too, but that's a much dicier proposition; Ryan is haunted by an episode from his recent past, and he shies away from more complex emotional commitments. Almost before it is established, this fragile ad hoc family's existence is threatened.

In its best passages, We Live by the Sea makes clear Hannah's deep devotion to Katy, as well as its terrible cost. At a time when she should be beginning her adult life, she is relegated to the role of her sister's keeper, with no discernible exit point. We see the sheer exhaustion of always living according to Katy's laws, as well as the debilitating effect of her tantrums. As if this weren't enough, Hannah berates herself for her entirely human feelings of frustration and despair. Katy's terrors are genuinely upsetting -- and ear-splitting -- experiences that would challenge any medical professional. When Hannah reaches out to Ryan, her tentative feelings of hope are palpable -- and when he withdraws from her, the impact is wrenching.

We Live by the Sea is a company-created work, which may explain why it feels underwritten. Katy is a fiercely imagined character and Alexandra Brain realizes her down to the last detail -- nervously wringing her hands as she speaks, delivering her lines in a halting manner that goes up a step or two with each phrase, sometimes ending in a quiet squeal that slowly fades away. When she recalls her brutal handling by her fellow students -- using an epithet I won't repeat here -- the words feel as if they are ripped out of her by hot forceps. It is, in every way, an extraordinary, deeply committed performance. But Hannah is relegated to the sidelines too much of the time, as is Ryan, who is unable to come to terms with the friend's death for which he feels responsible. Both these characters and their nascent romance would require more attention than they get in order to fully work out the play's dramatic triangle.

The production design is extremely limited. There is no set, and the video sequences -- mostly shots of the characters frolicking on the beach -- are repetitive. On the plus side, Rachel Sampley's lighting manages to transform Theater B more than once, using a small number of units. No sound designer is credited, but the build-up of static effects as Katy heads into one of her episodes is nicely done, clearly conveying how sensory overload drives her to distraction. A handful of effectively melancholy songs, written by the sisters known as The Mason Brothers and played by Josh Flowers and Julianna Zachariou, strike the right tone.

The rest of the cast performs with an appealing mix of candor and tact. Alexandra Simonet makes Hannah into a genuinely loving figure, even if the strain of caring for Katy is wearing her down to nothing. Tom Coliandris is appealing as Ryan, a lost, lonely figure who is struggling to put his life back together. Lizzie Grace amuses as Paul Williams, especially in a speech during which she confides to the audience that she is little more than a reflection of Katy's needs.

Perhaps the play's many rough edges are part of its impact. We Live by the Sea reaches a conclusion that offers room for hope, but it's not entirely satisfying, because so much has been left unexplored. Then again, these characters are likely to stick in one's memory; there are many more polished shows that don't achieve that. -- David Barbour

(19 April 2018)

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