The Sea; A Different Moon | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Sea; A Different Moon


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Cypress Group

at Latino Chicago Theater Company


Terrapin Theatre

at Red Bones Theatre

The 1907 incident is as bizarre as it is shocking: not that Willy and Colin's boat should capsize in suddenly rough waters, nor that old Evens, the half-mad beach bum, should be too drunk to heed their cries for help, but that the local volunteer coast guard should deliberately decline to rescue the hapless victims. Colin drowns, though Willy survives to demand an inquest into the circumstances surrounding this inhumane neglect.

Willy's search for an explanation introduces us to the citizens of the sleepy town on the North Sea coast of East Anglia where such things are permitted to happen. They include the straitlaced Mrs. Louise Rafi, the quintessence of Victorian propriety, who rules the affairs of the town with an iron hand, and her niece Rose, the fiancee of the dead man who now chafes under the boredom from which she hoped marriage would deliver her--Willy is quite prepared to oblige her in his late friend's stead. There are also the ladies who rehearse an amateur production of Orpheus and Eurydice to support the coast guard fund: Miss Jessica Tilehouse, whose meek demeanor conceals passions of astonishing intensity; Miss Mafanwy Price, whose devotion to animals makes her an easy choice for the role of Cerberus, the canine gatekeeper of Hades; and the featherheaded Jilly, who hides a vaguely sexual curiosity about the mysterious Evens. We also meet Mr. Hatch, a dry-goods merchant who was the officer on patrol that fatal night and who has of late been talking of alien invaders infiltrating the town's complacent existence. His fellow tradesmen regard his ravings as harmless, but the half-witted Billy Hollarcut vows to keep vigilant watch for signs of spies. Providing an ominous accompaniment is the rumble of cannon fire as the civil defense forces get ready to repel the German navy.

In the hands of aging radical playwright Edward Bond this snapshot of paranoia at the sunset of the British Empire becomes what he calls a "comedy of terrors," a slippery juxtaposition of satirical humor and grotesque melodrama in which the laughs are generated by the characters' suffering: Hatch's delusional fear, Jessica's frustrated bids for attention, Billy's class-endangered humiliation at the hands of the overbearing Mrs. Rafi, who recognizes the thanklessness and futility of her insistence on orderly behavior, but faces her responsibilities bravely. The wildly veering emotions evoked by this singularly British brand of comedy, coupled with long didactic speeches and some rather threadbare literary motifs (the sea as a reminder of eternally passing time, the drunk/idiot/lunatic as soothsayer), could easily have rendered this production as unexciting as the changing of the tide. But the newly formed Cypress Group, under the sensitive direction of John Nicholson, squeezes every bit of juice from this lemon of a script, creating a study in human psychology that transcends the banality of its inspiration. Annabel Armour as Mrs. Rafi transforms what could have been a standard dragon into a courageous heroine defending her weaker sisters against imminent chaos. John Judd gives the whiskey-soaked Evens patriarchal dignity befitting a prophet, and Andrew Leman shifts Hatch from ludicrous hysteria to piteously vulnerable terror with ease and compassion. Fine work is also displayed by Pamela Gaye as the absurd Jessica and Belinda Bremner as the oafish Mafanwy. But Matt Penn seems unable to play Billy as anything more than a sullen lout, and Jeffrey Lieber and Shawn Simons almost make Willy and Rose disappear under their ingenuousness. Korrin Loughridge's costumes locate us chronologically as precisely as Elizabeth McGeehan's set, Michael Shapiro's dialect instruction, and some uncredited sound effects do geographically.

A Different Moon is also set in a complacent society on the verge of war and upheaval--the American south at the start of the Korean war. But playwright Ara Watson's attempt to elevate the tale of a GI's mother and sister rallying behind the mother of his illegitimate offspring into an allegory of Changing Times suffers from the same ambiguity and lack of focus that doomed her Mesmerist earlier this year. Is Tyler's boyishness that of a naive but good-hearted all-American youth or of an irresponsible child whose answer to every mishap is to run away from it? Is the manner in which his family dotes on him affection or smothering quasi-incestuous domination? Do the women bond together out of shared survivalist strength or joint denial of the essential unworthiness of the son/brother/lover who provides a center for their boring lives?

Human beings are of course complicated and often contradictory, but when they're presented in the abbreviated time span of a play, selectivity in the presenting of information is mandatory. Yet Watson prefers to inundate us with irritatingly unconnected details. The pregnant--or so she claims--Sarah is introduced as a 34-year-old farm widow, but is given the innocence of a teenager (and, as played by Clara York, the grooming and manners of a charm-school-trained urbanite). As the Tom Sawyer-ish Tyler Chris Petschler is required to do little more than shift his feet uneasily and wait to make his escape. Valerie Gorman as the mother and Jeanine Bell as the sister are also reduced to walking through their nebulous roles. Terrapin Theatre's previous work has shown it to be a troupe of talent and competence, but it can't save a script as badly in need of revision as this.

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