The Tall Ships

Live Bait Theater

By Albert Williams

"Why do things always happen on holidays?" an exasperated middle-aged housewife, Vicki, blurts out in Sharon Evans's new play, The Tall Ships. She means bad things, of course: the crises that erupt whenever the family gets together for officially sanctioned celebrations that are somehow supposed to cure the ills that eat away at them the rest of the year. "Why is that?" Vicki asks, near tears. "I put up decorations. I cook all day. I just want everything to be nice."

As Evans shows in her tender, thoughtful play--a sometimes funny but often dark portrait of a Fourth of July family reunion complicated by an unexpected romance--"nice" is often an impossible goal, especially when holiday hoopla only throws festering wounds and resentments into sharp, bitter relief. Holidays are like the relationships we chase after in the name of "love": apparent opportunities to escape our own emotional problems and create the contentment and security a family life is supposed to provide but often doesn't. The Tall Ships insightfully exploits an amusing but mournful irony: How has a bloody revolution that split families apart in 1776 come to inspire complacent family picnics and pretty fireworks symbolizing the fiery bombs of war? Yet it has. And why do people pursue passionate attachments when they're on the rebound from failed affairs--or seek the same illusion of mated bliss they watched crumble in their parents' marriage? Yet we do. Like Vicki and her family, we just want everything to be nice.

Beautifully acted and ingeniously designed in a world premiere directed by Gary Griffin, The Tall Ships takes place mostly during the days leading up to July 4, 1976--a time when the nation was still reeling from the debacle of Vietnam and the disgrace of President Nixon's fall but trying hard to rouse its patriotic pride on the occasion of its 200th birthday. This is no "let's spoof the 70s" laff fest, however; it's a bittersweet comedy-drama whose time and place emphasize the theme of hope for the future despite the prison of the past. The story centers on Vicki's daughter, Sara, and her relationship with Geoffrey, an English tourist she meets when he gets her name off a ride board. She's in her early 20s, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; he's a middle-aged divorcé from Manchester hitching across the United States. Both are former painters who gave up the discipline--she to study bookmaking and poetry, he to become an art teacher. She's headed to her family's farm on the outskirts of Syracuse; he wants to visit New York City for the bicentennial blowout, with its display of tall-masted sailing ships on the Hudson.

Showing the knack for literate, unpredictable dialogue she also displayed in such works as Starving Artists, Evans here exhibits a brave new emotional depth in her writing that's matched by the delicately nuanced performances of Laura Scott Wade as Sara and Larry Neumann Jr. as Geoffrey. Every detail of gesture, vocal inflection, and facial expression in the couple's cross-country conversation registers a mountain of emotional complexity, revealing two intelligent, deeply conflicted people, capable of happiness and humor yet keenly aware of the dark currents that can set people on the road to sorrow and self-destruction. He eagerly extols the grim genius of Francis Bacon's paintings and the pleasures of sailing but grows less voluble when discussing his failed marriage and problematic relationship with his teenage son. She brims with girlish enthusiasm when she tells him the story of Charlotte's Web, but her face is transformed by a tight-lipped anxiety when she recites from memory the morbidly beautiful verse of suicidal poet Sylvia Plath, reprimands Geoffrey for saying an all-female crew "manned" a ship, or discusses the financially ruinous attempt at a political career made by her father, Hal.

When Sara and Geoffrey arrive at her home, it becomes apparent that Hal's failure at politics is part of a general fecklessness that's made life miserable for Sara and Vicki. Vicki also wanted to be a painter but settled for being a homemaker--and the script nicely captures the mother and daughter's alternating rivalry and solidarity. Vicki, played with unerring rightness by Linda Reiter, insists she's planning to leave Hal (she sings "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" while she's sweeping the kitchen floor), but when we get to know her we realize she'll never do it. Hal (played by the excellent Dev Kennedy) is a proud Irish Catholic--he still dines out on having once shaken John Kennedy's hand--and self-styled gentleman farmer, grooming his horses or perfecting his golf swing while generally ignoring his family. (Sara's brother, we're told, is off at a commune studying transcendental meditation.) But Hal takes notice--and is none too pleased--when Sara arrives with a man old enough to be her father but too polite and cultivated ever to be taken for him. Geoffrey usually conveys an air of thoughtful aloofness (we learn little and sense much about what destroyed his marriage)--but his temper flares with Hal, whom he calls an "arrogant bully."

For a while we anticipate a rematch of the revolution, with the British winning. But eventually it becomes clear that Geoffrey, who's got his own problems at home, can't alter the deeply dysfunctional dynamics of Sara's family; eschewing the dishonest dramatics another writer might have concocted, Evans paints a credible and painful portrait of people working to overcome deep-seated emotional pathologies. The only fireworks in The Tall Ships are the ones at the Fourth of July picnic that Sara and her parents attend while Geoffrey heads off to Manhattan to see the tall ships--after giving Sara a perplexing, passionate farewell kiss. Only in the second act, after three years' separation, does the couple--well, couple, when a much more womanly Sara takes a holiday in England, seeking not a tall ship but an emotional lifeboat. How her renewed relationship with Geoffrey affects both their lives is the main theme of the play's second half; the changing nature of Hal and Vicki's marriage provides dramatic counterpoint.

By portraying people who pursue happiness in defiance or denial of their personal histories, Evans eschews both easy satire and easy solutions. How simple it would have been for her to take potshots at that old standby, the dysfunctional American family, or to retreat into upbeat sentimentality with Sara and Geoffrey's romance. But at a time when many playwrights seem to be auditioning for jobs as staff writers for sitcoms or soap operas, Evans is too subtle and too in touch with the muddled emotions of real people to settle for either cruel comic caricature or feel-good falsity. Even Hal, whose patriarchal posturing and loud golfer's outfits bring him closest to a stereotype, reveals a sympathetic complexity that makes his cluelessness more tolerable.

Griffin's fluid, almost dreamlike staging greatly benefits from Mary Griswold's simple but ingenious set: a tilted wood-planked deck with rigging, silken sails that serve as screens for Stephan Mazurek's projected images, and a bench that represents the seat of Sara's car, then folds into a green-turfed rectangle to depict Hal's golf range. From the ceiling hang lovely little model ships; today they may be merely hobbyists' fancies, Geoffrey tells us, but they began as talismans for sailors praying for safe crossing on dangerous oceans. (One such crossing is the subject of a dream sequence in which Geoff rides out a storm at sea as captain of a schooner manned--sorry, Sara--by Sara and Vicki, whose skill with a rope is a metaphor for her marriage: once she ties a knot, she boasts, it stays tied.) Adding rich texture is Joseph Fosco's superb sound, whose effects range from the roar of Niagara Falls to the chirping of crickets to the booms and whistles of a fireworks display, which segue into the ritualized "ooohhs" of unseen onlookers--families whose imagined contentment Sara envies, knowing nothing of the troubles they endure.

It's only at the play's end that Evans goes astray: in a series of long-winded speeches, the characters try to make sense of their situations to one another--and to themselves. The problem is that Evans is trying to create closure in a play whose very honesty ensures an inconclusive story. Her dramatist's instincts tell her the tale must be wrapped up like a holiday gift. But these bittersweet lives will inevitably continue to unravel, like isolated strands of ribbon that sometimes intertwine but finally go their own ways. Sara, Vicki, Hal, and even Geoff are like America itself--improbably, uncertainly, painfully, and determinedly wrestling with two conflicting forces: the downward tug of the troubled past and the will to live that drives them forward as they navigate the beautiful, dangerous, uncharted oceans of their lives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephanie Howard.

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