Tina Howe’s first new play in eight years mixes reality and fantasy as a family deals with putting its patriarch in a nursing home as a hurricane approaches.
The play is set on Singing Beach, Manchester, on the north shore of Massachusetts, in “July in the not-too-distant future,” a location referred to in several of Howe’s other plays such as Coastal Disturbances and Pride’s Crossing. While her two teenage children play in the sand, Merrie and her second husband Owen argue about their decision to put her elder father, the poet Ashton Sleeper, in a nursing home as he has been unable to speak since two stokes the year before, immediately after the death of his wife, and he has become incontinent.
Merrie is still not comfortable with the decision and has not told her children. When ten-year-old daughter Piper finds out about losing her grandfather, she can’t accept it and retreats into her memories. While the family deals with the approach of Hurricane Cassandra with winds of 150 miles an hour, she borrows her older brother Tyler’s jackknife and carves a ship she calls the S.S. Pegasus.
Recalling her grandfather’s stories of his happy trips on the S.S. United States in the 1950’s with her grandmother, Piper fantasizes about going on her model ship with her grandfather who suddenly regains his power of speech. On the ship, they meet her science teacher Miss Blake (played by her mother) who discourses about climate change, her father, the British artist Sebastian Flood (played by Owen), television star Gabriel Justice who Piper thought she saw in Singing Beach, The Captain (played by her grandfather’s aide Bennie) and Credo, a stowaway played by her brother Tyler.
The play then alternates between the family taking shelter from the hurricane and Piper’s imagined voyage on the Pegasus which also runs into a storm at sea. When the two storms end, it is time to take Sleeper to the nursing home. Both stories conclude with hopeful endings, though there is the hint that the play is based on the story of Noah.
Aside from the destructive nature of the storm and that the Pegasus eventually arrives at a desert shore, there isn’t much to be learned about climate change. We never know if Sleeper lost his ability to speak as a result of his strokes or has chosen not to speak after the death of his wife, which is an entirely different state of affairs. The cast of characters is made up of a great many creative people who are simply labels as we learn nothing about their work or their careers: novelist Merrie, classical scholar Owen, artist Sebastian, poet Ashton, scientist Miss Blake. The thinness of both the characters and the story keeps the play from making any important points.
Given that they have so little to do, the cast has trouble bringing their parts to life. As Merrie, Erin Beirnard is simply a bundle of anxieties, while her Miss Blake is all pontification and pedantry. John P. Keller’s Owen is more exasperated than anything else, while his portrayal of the bisexual artist Sebastian Flood is tissue thin as we learn nothing about him other than that he lives in England with his male lover. Tuck Milligan can do little with the patriarch Ashton Sleeper who for most of the play is not allowed to say anything. As the imaginative Piper who through her eyes we see half of the play, Elodie Lucinda Morss has been given too much of the play to carry on her shoulders.
As her 12-year-old brother Tyler, an expert fencer, Jackson Demott Hill is little more than an obnoxious adolescent teasing his sister every chance he gets. Naren Weiss exudes a quiet air of authority as Bennie, the Sleeper’s attendant, while his portrayal of the Captain of the ship is more out of a fairy tale than reality. Devin Haqq is quite believable as dashing television star Gabriel Justice, a doctor on the hit series Mental States, but we never know to what he owes his fame.
Jen Price Fick’s scenic design of a beach, pier and pilings used for both indoor and outdoor scenes, complemented by Matthew J. Fick’s’ lighting, creates fine atmosphere but can’t help save this thin, first draft of a play. Caroline Spitzer’s many costumes for the double sets of characters are occasionally witty, mostly contemporary and realistic. Possibly dealing with undigested autobiographical elements, Tina Howe has not brought her new play into focus as of yet.
Singing Beach (through August 12, 2017)
HERE Arts Center Mainstage, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.here.org/shows/
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission
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