Gardner McKay’s tender Irish love story, Sea Marks, has had several New York productions. The latest one is at the Irish Repertory Theatre piloted by producing director Ciarán O’Reilly. This two-hander stars Xanthe Elbrick and Patrick Fitzgerald as the lonely people who fall in love through a long distance correspondence after a casual meeting. What is needed is instant chemistry since we must believe that these two are not only in love but ought to spend the rest of their lives together. Unfortunately, this is in short supply so that too much suspension of disbelief is required.
Having met at wedding in 1966 on Cliffhorn Heads, an island off the west coast of Ireland, lonely fisherman Colm Primrose (Fitzgerald) begins writing to Timothea Stiles (Elbrick) in Liverpool when she returns home. At first, she is not even sure that she remembers him as they never spoke at the reception. After a year of letters, Timothea returns to the island for another wedding and they begin an affair, having gotten to know each other through their correspondence. However, as she has to return to her job in a publishing firm, he follows her this time.
At first, all is paradise for Colm who is having his first affair at age 45 and has never had a girlfriend. But the younger Timothea sees in Colm a way of getting ahead at her job. She has edited Colm’s letters (leaving out the personal parts) into a book of poetry she has named Sea Sonnets and with the approval of her boss, she plans on turning Colm into the Irish Robert Frost. Colm would have called the book Sea Marks, “those lines that the highest reach of the tide leave on the land to remind you that it’ll be back.” Unfortunately, like the sea marks, Colm misses his fishing and his island home and can’t find anything to do in Liverpool. However, the worst things for the shy islander are the literary events that Timothea sets up to display his innate talents as a poet.
The writing is extremely poetic turning almost everything Colm says into a form of naturalistic verse. Timothea, on the other hand, who turns out to be a divorcée with an ex-husband who still checks up on her, is not as well written and requires the actress to bring more of her own personality to it. A longtime regular at the Irish Repertory Theatre last seen in 2013 as Leopold Bloom in Gibraltar, Fitzgerald skillfully captures the temperament of a man who has been self-sufficient all his life, one who has absorbed the spirit of place and has lived the way his ancestors have always lived. He has the soul of a poet and it comes out in everything he says.
Elbrick (Tony and Drama Desk Award-nominated for Coram Boy) does less well with the underwritten Timothea who as an urbanite is more circumspect about her life and feelings than the innocently naïve and open Colm. While we learn little about her previous life, her ambitions only become clear late in the play. Rather than mysterious or reserved, Elbrick makes her rather bland and colorless as contrasted with Fitzgerald’s Colm. That the passion of these two people is only obvious in the words is a flaw in the production as their bond depends on their total devotion and emotional honesty.
Charlie Corcoran has solved the problem of the two locations needed, the stone cottage on Cliffhorn Heads and the apartment in Liverpool with a revolving stage which first allows us to see the two side by side and then cleverly turns the entire space into Timothea’s Liverpool flat. The lighting by Michael Gottlieb is as subtle as required. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are perfectly suitable for the two milieus of the story. The offstage murmur of the sea is the work of sound designer M. Florian Staab while the music between the scenes is by Ryan Rumery.
Gardner McKay’s Sea Marks is beautifully written but leaves a great deal up to the actors and the director as does a scenario for an opera or a ballet. The performers must flesh out the underpinnings of the story. Director Ciarán O’Reilly has done a fine job with the characterizations but has not brought out the passion that underlies the tale. Xanthe Elbrick and Patrick Fitzgerald may need more time than the rehearsal period and previews to dig deep into these two lonely people from two different ways of life.
Sea Marks (through July 13, 2014)
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212- 727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with one intermission