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Theatre in Review: On the Shore of the Wide World (Atlantic Theater Company)

C. J. Wilson, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfield, Mary McCann. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Most psychologists will tell you that the healing process following a terrible loss is a slow one. This is undoubtedly true, but surely it often moves faster than the glacial pace maintained in On the Shore of the Wide World. Simon Stephens' long, lumbering drama follows the travails of a British family as it absorbs a major blow, disintegrates, then comes together again, finding safe harbor after navigating oceans of talk. Stephens has earned plenty of attention in recent seasons with such works as Heisenberg, Punk Rock, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which helps to explain why this 2005 work is finally making its way to our shores. Neil Pepe's production, with its unnaturally high boiling point, makes it clear why it has taken so long to arrive.

It's a wide-angle drama, covering three generations of the Holmes family, who live in Stockport, just outside of Manchester. At 18, Alex has acquired his first serious girlfriend, Sarah; to his surprise and delight, he has also obtained parental approval for her to spend the night. The parents, Peter and Alice, have, after twenty years, settled into a comfortable groove: He restores buildings for a living and she runs the household. Another son, fifteen-year-old Christopher, is a bit of a trial, operating as he does without a filter. "Is he a little bit mentally ill?" wonders Sarah, bemused by his brazen attempt at kissing her behind Alex's back. In fact, Christopher plans to woo her away, beginning with a plan to gift her with a picture of her favorite soccer star.

Meanwhile, Peter's parents, Charlie and Ellen, are not exactly enjoying their golden years together. She yearns for an inexpressible something more, while he wants her to be quiet, listen to his complaints, and tend to his needs. (He's also a major boozer and secret cigarette smoker.) A power struggle, over Ellen's desire to spend an evening out alone, slips out of control, and Christopher arrives to see his grandparents locked in a physical struggle.

This faintly brittle family circle is broken when tragedy strikes: I won't reveal the incident, but it is typical of Stephens' determinedly mundane approach that we don't find out what happened until well after the fact, via a casual conversation. In its wake, other fault lines appear: Alex and Sarah decamp for London, wounding Peter and sending the already ravaged Alice into a downward spiral. Alice and Peter find themselves drifting apart, each taking up with new confidantes -- and, in at least once instance, adultery looms as a possibility. It also looks like Charlie isn't long for this world -- which, given his abusive ways, might not be the worst thing -- a turn of events that cues a couple of confrontations with certain of his descendants.

There's enough material to keep a Netflix series percolating for a full season, but, in Stephens' hands, the drama is both unwieldy and undercooked. The action is sliced up into dozens of brief television-style scenes -- few, if any, of which build to anything like a climax; often, the play feels constructed out of a series of tangents. (The lighting designer, the excellent Christopher Akerlind, executes what feels like a record number of crossfades in an attempt at creating some sense of flow.) The most emotionally fraught moments are played in such a determinedly downbeat manner that one starts to wonder if the Holmeses aren't popping Ativan en famille. (The one exception is Peter Maloney's Charlie, who is red-faced with choler -- not that anyone pays much attention.) The author's attention is spread so equally among his cast of characters that, individually, they are starved for development. It's hard to care about Peter and Alice's marriage because we never have a sense of what it was like in good times, and their dalliances -- such as they are -- amount to very little. Charlie and Ellen's relationship is so underwritten as to barely make sense; Blair Brown is thoroughly wasted as Ellen, surely the skimpiest role to come her way since her tyro days. Peter's big scene, a lengthy monologue delivered to the ailing Charlie, doesn't really land, since we've barely seen them interact.

Pepe gets good, honest work out of his cast, constrained as they are by the script's narrowness. C. J. Wilson suggests the quiet desperation at Peter's core as he contends with a spouse and children who increasingly behave in ways that he finds baffling. Mary McCann has a fine moment when a dropped coffee cup reveals Alice's fury at the twists of fate that keep befalling her. Tedra Millan provides some welcome humor as the curt, practical Sarah, although her relationship with Alex -- nicely played by Ben Rosenfield -- is largely shaped by inadequately described offstage events. There are also solid contributions from Amelia Workman, as a sympathetic customer of Peter's, and Leroy McClain, as an interloper who brings unwanted news to Alice, then sticks around to flirt.

The play unfolds across a variety of locations, and Scott Pask's two-level set awkwardly tries to embrace them all; it provides plenty of playing areas, but feels strangely anonymous and empty, like the condemned hotel to which the younger characters often repair at night. At least Akerlind's lighting goes a long way toward suggesting various locations and times of day. More evocatively, Sarah Laux's costumes draw strong lines between the generations, and David Van Tieghem provides some attractive incidental music, drawing on piano and guitar, plus such effects as a bus motor, birdsong, a train leaving the station, and pop music selections from 2004, the play's time frame.

It's easy to appreciate Stephens' desire to explore the quieter corners of grief, but On the Shore of the Wide World often seems to be dangerously lacking in a dramatic pulse. The disconnect between the tragedy at its heart and the author's mild treatment of its aftereffects is such that nothing seems to matter. It ends with three characters silently setting a dinner table, a moment that is meant to suggest a kind of rebirth, but which instead leaves one wondering if the play is really finished. -- David Barbour

(13 September 2017)

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