The Review: Public Theater’s Sea Wall/A Life
“Read me story“, says one young girl, as told to us by her father. And story-telling is what this double hitting evening of one-act plays paired together with radiant pleasure and pain is all about. As directed with empathy and clarity by Carrie Cracknell (National’s Blurred Lines), both monologues tease out their tales with precision and expertise, diving back and forth between waves of grief and joy, all wrapped around the aspects of what it is like to swim in the ocean of grief, anger, joy and the hopefulness of humanity and attachment.
Sea Wall/A Life are bookends holding their pieces of tragic fiction in place on a bare bi-level stage courtesy of the simplistic beauty of scenic designer Laura Jellinek (NYTW’s Mary Jane), with strongly telling costuming by Kaye Voyce (Public’s Office Hour), steadfast sound design by Fabian Obispo (Public’s Teenage Dick), delicate original music by Stuart Earl (Almeida’s Oil), and dynamic spot-on lighting by Peter Kaczorowski (Broadway’s Sweat), that tell somewhat similar but diametric stories of the extreme edges of life and tragedy. They jab and explore the gaping emotional hole that is born in a man’s torso when life comes into existence, and gutted when it is taken away. It’s the best bits of a man, experiencing life and death as a son, a father, and a husband, peppered with strong waves of crashing metaphors, and sliced between ‘way back then’ and ‘sometime close to now’.
Sea Wall clicks into place with the arrival of Tony Award nominee Tom Sturridge (Broadway’s 1984, Orphans), snapping the lights on to shed light on his third collaboration with Tony and Olivier Award winner Simon Stephens (Heisenberg, On the Shore…, Wastwater). Both have a richness in their voices that when crushed together as they are here under the waves of the unknowable leaves a mark on our collective hearts. Sturridge engulfs us in his captivating telling, steeped in the Northern Ireland swag, parceling out his two-pronged tale with tension and an edge for suspense. There is true beauty and pain in Stephens writing, born on the backside of all that is deemed of value to this simple man, a parceled out to us on Sturridge’s incoming tide of powerfulness. His sentences drop off leaving us dangling like a swimmer at the Sea Wall. It’s truly mesmerizing, pulling us towards his love and hurt like a strong undertow that will leave us gasping for air and battling the waves to survive.
After we catch our heart-broken breath during intermission, Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal (Broadway’s Sunday in the Park..) saunters onto the stage in similar fashion to Sturridge. Flipping the switch but then abandoning us, leaving us alone with anticipation. “Please come back, Jake“, we all plead internally, and after a few moments of keeping us at bay, he returns to the circle of light to continue his grand artistic collaboration with the fantastical detailed Nick Payne, who gave birth to one of my all time favorite Broadway experiences, Constellations. Like he did in that magnificent piece, Jake dives in, matching the pace and manner of Sturridge, but with some slightly different tones and connections. His pacing, flipping from one aside to another, is a bit more abrupt, and his delivery more charming than dangerous. But we can’t help but care for this man, even as I beg him to slow down, and dig in some more. Dive, Jake, in deeper into the pauses, and give us a chance to see the flip-side of fatherdom. It’s compassionately engaging, but not as breathless and damaging to our souls.
Payne’s A Life doesn’t have the intense punch to the gut like Stephens’ Sea Wall, even though both deliver the material with a clear sense of purpose. They do balance one another with a focused grace and a clear paternal care, from both ends of the spectrum. It’s the creation of life and the taking away of that same gift. It’s simplistically authentic, especially in the way it jumps quickly around to the backside of each emotional moment with clarity of vision and heart. To climb this hill is to give each one of us a breathtaking view of the complexities of humanity and fatherhood. It’s about being a man, without worrying about masculinity. And the pleasure is pure and gratifying, especially once we struggle back to the surface and catch our much needed breath.