BEACH CRAFT

When you think of Edward Albee, the word "hopeful" does not readily leap to mind. The author of The Zoo Story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and All Over, among many other dark dramas, lashes out at human cruelty, egotism and the inability to communicate across gender and class lines. In his works, eccentric, selfish people harbor grudges and find ingenious ways to hurt each other. There is very little in the way of joy or light in these plays, so despite some flaws in the overall conception, the Director's Theatre production of Albee's Seascape is a delightful surprise. Albee's beautiful language and some of his persistent themes surface here, but they're transformed into an odd, generous and (somewhat) heartening comic drama capable of inspiring a lasting buzz in the viewer.

As the story opens, Charlie and Nancy picnic lazily on the beach. Charlie has apparently just retired, and as he lies reading contentedly, Nancy begins a long harangue (Albee's middle-aged women are always demanding) about how she wants to move to the beach--not to a permanent home, but to a life as a nomad, moving from sunny strip to sunny strip around the world as the seasons change. She laments growing old and complains that the end is the same as the beginning--napping, needing care, being barely conscious of the outside world.

So she nudges Charlie to reinvest in life, taunting, coaxing, even raging at him. Buried resentments surface in hurtful ways (all very Albee), and Charlie passively resists at first. But Nancy gets nastier and more outrageous as she tries to get a rise out of him. It's unfathomably touching when he turns to her at last and asks, "Why did you do this? You're not cruel by nature."

Nancy, however, just doesn't want him drifting off from her into some semi-vegetative state. She is fighting for his life and for hers--presumably because she loves him. He wants a little peace, a little rest. She wants to anticipate new adventures. So she suggests he play one of his favorite childhood games with her: walking into the water in some clear cove with rocks in their hands and sinking slowly to the bottom of the ocean. He again refuses.

But the primal experience Nancy is after is reflected in the emergence from just such a cove of two pearly-green sea monsters. Leslie and Sara mirror Nancy and Charlie in the longevity of their relationship and in their tender regard for each other. They have no word for emotions in their truncated vocabulary, but they experience them nonetheless. Nancy and Charlie are afraid of the monsters at first, but soon Charlie and Leslie are doing the male-dominance dance, trying to scare each other off with brash noises, while the females try to make peace.

The monsters are sympathetic characters, because they're a little behind the humans on the evolutionary ladder. More innocent and somehow more pleasant, they don't berate each other for their failings. But the monsters face a challenge: They can't return to their home, and however hostile the earthly kingdom, they must make the transition. Fortunately, the highly flawed Nancy and Charlie offer to help them.

Albee may mean to say that the next step on the evolutionary ladder is community--but he could also mean that the poor monsters have nothing better than humans to aid them in their move to a new world. With Albee--even such an uncharacteristically optimistic Albee--ambivalence is fundamental to experience. I choose to believe Albee is remarking on the necessity of community; the very fact that the Homo sapiens want to help the monsters is auspicious. And somehow, Pamela Clifton's direction makes that genuine humanity felt.

The monsters carry most of the play's humane message. Rebecca White's and Scott Thompson's English accents confer on the monsters a slight formality. Moving with a touch of reptilian grace, creating mannerisms that remind one of underworldly creatures without going to mawkish extremes, White and Thompson are absolutely adorable.

Alan Dumas (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of mine) has a beautiful, richly rounded voice and a mastery of passive-aggressive nonchalance. His languid Charlie bursts into flights of male aggression when Leslie swishes his tail too fiercely, though most of the time he plays Charlie close to the breast. But Dumas relies too exclusively on that fine voice and never fully inhabits his character physically. He needs to relax into his body and develop the physical mannerisms that a man like Charlie might normally have.

The inventive Carol Elliott does all the right things with her body, but she plays Nancy too shrilly. It's a chilly performance, and the role demands more layers--both coolness and warmth. Any woman might try urgency, anger and taunting to get her husband jump-started. But people are seldom persuaded to greater life and love by stridency. Some visible sweetness at appropriate moments would persuade us more fully of the couple's requisite intimacy.

 
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