When Charlie (James Carpenter) was a boy, he used to swim into the ocean with a pair of heavy stones. He’s retired now and on vacation at the beach with his wife Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin), with whom he’s uneasily reminiscing about his adolescence. He says, as if he’s only just remembered, “I used to go way down, at our summer place — a protected cove.” Charlie’s long since given up on his dream to “live down in the coral and the ferns.” Nancy too has retired from her domestic life, tending to him, their kids and the house. Unlike her husband, she wants to venture out in the world, to have them lead a nomadic life. But Charlie sounds like he’s done, claiming, “I don’t want to do anything. I’m happy doing nothing.”
In Seascape (at A.C.T. through Feb. 17), Edward Albee interrupts Charlie’s sense of inertia. The playwright stirs up the character’s emotions in the very first scene and doesn’t relent. Carpenter’s voice alternates between melancholy and rage. Charlie has an aversion to indulging in nostalgia. That undersea life, the one that stayed in his imagination as a source of joy, represents some kind of missed opportunity. But it wouldn’t be at the forefront of his mind if Nancy hadn’t brought the topic up. The great conflict between them, as with all long term couples, is what the individual has to sacrifice in order for the partnership to last. Nancy’s taking stock of the marriage and has enough energy to ask her husband for a change. Whether he’s tired, afraid or merely stubborn, Charlie’s shut down.
Seascape is Pam MacKinnon’s directorial debut at A.C.T. since she became the artistic director there last summer. In this production, she elegantly houses Albee’s abstract ideas within the characters’ fleshly bodies. The difficulty this Albee play presents is that some of those ideas might get lost in the ether with the wrong director. Midway through their conversation, a green creature briefly pops its head up at the top of the dunes. The scenic designer, David Zinn, creates a dreamy, undulating sand dune where the action takes place. Since they’re facing forward, Charlie and Nancy don’t see it — only the audience does. The moment causes a frisson, a thrilling feeling that comes from not knowing what to expect. We realize that this married couple’s ordinary argument has become something else, an incantation.
When two human-sized lizards make their way towards them, Nancy asks, delighted and aghast, “What are they?” Earlier, she had seen them in the distance, swimming and then sunning themselves on the shore, assuming they were people. Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Leslie (Seann Gallagher) are definitely not people — but what they are is open for debate. Are they simply mirrors, summoned up from the primordial ooze of their unconscious selves? Charlie’s first thought at the sight of them is that he and Nancy are dead, that the pâté they ate for lunch has poisoned them. Nancy, being less cautious and more open to an uncanny encounter, wants to engage with the lizards.
Dressed in dark green costumes with long tails, Sarah’s and Leslie’s faces are painted yellow and green. If they played the lizards for their humorous appearance only, Seascape could easily drift into silly waters. While they deliver many lines with perfect comic timing — Leslie is a great name for a giant lizard — Hayon’s and Gallagher’s physical performances never come across as silly. They exhibit hybrid behavior. They’re part sentient being, part animal. Sometimes they crawl along the sand or sniff at the humans. They understand the world, and reckon with it, using their bodies and their senses alike. Initially, Charlie is mistrustful and can only see “the brute beast” in them. But as Nancy and Charlie both begin to explain themselves, and new concepts like “flight” to the lizards, each couple tentatively drops their wary stances toward the other.
What MacKinnon doesn’t do as a director is just as crucial. She veers away from turning the play into a melodrama. Albee omits the reason(s) for Charlie’s intense dissatisfaction. He doesn’t account for it by writing a monologue citing a specific incident from his unhappy childhood. Anyone who’s ever felt as free as a boy resting on the bottom of an ocean bed can relate to him. The lyrical image also implies a necessary escape from something on the surface. But the playwright, in his elliptical way, lets the weight of it stand on its own.
When Nancy asks Sarah how she and Leslie met, the lizards are unfamiliar with the concept of love. Like most of us, Nancy struggles to come up with a concrete definition. Charlie, however, takes a different approach and asks her, “What if you knew he [Leslie] was never coming back?” Sarah’s befuddled reply is, “I’d go look for him.” But Charlie persists and forces her to imagine a life without Leslie. His rhetoric pushes her to tears. Albee demonstrates ingeniously that you may not be able to define exactly what it means to love someone but you, and your lizard brain, sure as hell will feel it when it’s gone.
Seascape, through Feb. 17, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. $22-$130; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org