Katy is a 15-year-old girl from Yorkshire who wants to tell us a story. Actually, she wants to tell us two stories. One of them is about her life and the other is a fairy tale. What unites the stories is that in both of them there are dragons to be fought. But don’t be scared, because, as Katy reminds us, “even the biggest dragons can be slain if you have someone fighting with you.”
The real “dragon” Katy has to fight is the way others treat her, especially in school. Mostly they just ignore her, though there are times when they give voice to their cruelty. If you’re wondering why this is happening to Katy, it’s because she has autism which causes her to behave differently than how people expect a girl her age to behave.
What does that mean? Well, first of all, she’s very honest about her feelings. If she wants to be your friend, she’ll tell you straight away, without any reservations or circumspection. But, if you’ve done something to upset her, she’ll make that perfectly clear, too, possibly by fidgeting, or gesturing wildly, or screaming, or just not talking to you at all for a long time. She also does not like to be touched, ever. That upsets her the most.
Although you might think Katy is lonely, she’s not. She has an older sister, Hannah, who watches over her. Though, early on, it feels like Hannah herself is very much alone. That’s because their mother left and their father passed away, so Hannah hasn’t had anyone to help her look after Katy.
But, then, a boy Hannah’s age moves to town. His name is Ryan and he left his former school in London because something horrible happened for which he feels responsible. Though, to be as honest as Katy, his problem seems a bit contrived, and you don’t really want to hear too much about it.
Still, Ryan is basically a good guy who, after an awkward first encounter, grows to appreciate Katy for all of her unique qualities. When he genuinely becomes her friend, Hannah’s connection to him deepens as well.
In addition to Hannah and Ryan, Katy also has another trusted friend, Paul Williams. He sounds like a grown-up, but he’s not. He’s her imaginary dog. And he is a she, who talks to Katy, sometimes in a secret language that only the two of them can understand. Most importantly, Paul Williams would never lie to Katy about anything.
If, at this point, it sounds like Katy is an actual person, good, because she felt that way all throughout the remarkably engaging play We Live By The Sea. As Katy, Alexandra Brain avoids all the acting shortcuts and, instead, gives a performance that is pure empathy. Whereas someone else may have been satisfied simply depicting the physical manifestations of Katy’s mental condition, Brain beautifully achieves the much higher goal of humanizing Katy’s autism.
Devised collaboratively by Patch of Blue, a London-based theater company, the play also benefits from a talented supporting cast. Alexandra Simonet makes Hannah’s caretaker fatigue evident before she even says a word, but, somehow, you also never doubt her commitment to Katy. And Lizzie Grace is an absolute delight as Paul Williams, especially during a monologue late in the play, in which she pontificates on the importance of imaginary friends and gives insights into Katy that are both touching and profound. As for Ryan, Tom Coliandris does what he can with his character’s tacked-on back-story, but he shines when he’s simply required to be a warm, caring and decent presence.
Along with centering the actors emotionally, director Alex Howarth’s lithe production also manages to incorporate a lot of theatrical playfulness, too. Although the set is minimal, a charming musical score, composed by The Mason Brothers, accompanies the play. Along with Rachel Sampley’s bracing lighting effects and Howarth’s many subtle orchestrations, it all helps to round out both the world that Katy must endure and the fanciful one that sustains her.
We Live by the Sea (through May 6, 2018)
Patch of Blue & The Hartshorn-Hook Foundation
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission