By Simon Stephens; Directed by Neil Pepe
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 10.8.17
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street
by Ken Kaissar on 9.12.17
C.J. Wilson, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfeld, and Mary McCann in On the Shore of the Wide World. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: This play, which first premiered in the U.K. in 2005, is a complicated and profound family drama with a virtuoso ensemble.
The title of Simon Stephens' play comes from a poem by John Keats, which begins “[w]hen I have fears that I may cease to be/before my pen has gleaned my teaming brain,” and reflects on the anxiety that life may end before we have the opportunity to realize our potential, before we have an opportunity to love. And yet some of us live long lives and still never manage to love adequately, the way we feel our loved ones deserve.
On the Shore of the Wide World is a brilliant meditation on this devastating poem, and it feels about as immense as the wide world. It’s filled with a plenitude of short, fragmented scenes which, like life, go by in the blink of an eye. We may not understand everything we see and hear in the moment, but the inevitable clarity catches up to us a few scenes later.
We are introduced to three generations of couples within a family. First we meet Alex and Sarah (Ben Rosenfeld and Tedra Millan), a couple in their late teens whose lives have not yet begun. Next are Alex’s middle-aged parents, Peter and Alice (C.J. Wilson and Mary McCann). Finally, we meet the grandparents, Charlie and Ellen (Peter Maloney and Blair Brown). Each scene makes apparent just how much these people care about on another, not in their actions—in some cases they are downright awful and cruel—but in the remorse and guilt they feel in disappointing each other. Can we really make good on the happiness that we promise our loved ones? Are we all doomed to disappoint and break the hearts of those we love? If not through bad behavior, we will inevitably disappoint by dying. That’s the tragedy of the human condition. Our relationships are laborious and painful, and over much too soon.
I often found myself confused. Stephens’ script is not always clear about the life-altering events that seem to happen between scenes and he never foreshadows what’s to come. At intermission, I was convinced this was a dramaturgical weakness. But it occurred to me that we are intended to experience this play the way we experience life—unaware of those life-altering moments until they are behind us. The structure of Stephens’ script is just as intelligent and profound as his statement. Stephens doesn’t allow On the Shore to be neat and tidy for the sake of clarity. He dares to make his play as messy and chaotic as life often feels.
Atlantic’s artistic director Neil Pepe counteracts the messiness by grounding it with organized and compartmentalized staging. Scott Pask gives the play a tremendous foundation with a durable and implacable set that keeps each character anchored and defined in time and space. But the brilliant acting is the true selling point of this piece. Every member of this ten-person cast delivers pure acting gold, making every moment irresistible.
Though the play is complex in structure and content, the whole thing can be summed up in a throw-away moment between Sarah and an unnamed cab driver as she impulsively flees her young boyfriend without a word of warning. “It’s complicated being alive, isn’t it?” the driver affirms. It sure is.
(On the Shore of the Wide World plays at Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, through October 8, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Additional performances on Sunday 9/17 at 7, Wednesday 9/20 at 2, and Wednesday 10/4 at 2. Tickets are $66.50 and are available at atlantictheater.org.)
On the Shore of the Wide World is by Simon Stephens. Directed by Neil Pepe. Set Design is by Scott Pask. Costume Design is by Sarah Laux. Lighting Design is by Christopher Akerlind. Original Music and Sound Design is by David Van Tieghem. Fight Choreography is by J. David Brimmer. Wigs by Leah Loukas. Stage Manager is Hannah Sullivan.
The cast is Blair Brown, Odiseas Georgiadis, Peter Maloney, Mary McCann, LeRoy McClain, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfeld, C.J. Wilson, Amelia Workman and Wesley Zurick.