By Carolyn Hayes
Understanding and belonging are at the center of Edward Albee’s fanciful “Seascape”: Specifically, comprehension breeds evolution, which comes at the price of comfort and constancy. As directed by Lynch Travis, the production at the Blackbird Theatre spins a confrontation that is rooted in fantasy, but whose potential consequences feel very real. In trying to reconcile the commonplace with the uncharted in the world of the play, the viewer is challenged to reflect on both the value and the cost of those social and emotional developments that we believe make humankind unique.
The play begins with the placid visage of vacationing couple Nancy (Linda Rabin Hamell) and Charlie (Joel Mitchell), harmlessly quibbling over their expectations and hopes for their golden years. The actors play as much in subtext as they do in text: Hamell’s insatiably chatty take on Nancy reflects her wanderlust and strife to remain active and vital; Mitchell’s exasperated stoicism belies his repeated invocations of rest and yearning to blend into the scenery in solitude. Albeit at cross purposes, the duo has a believable feel of togetherness and a practiced cadence that suits the tone of Albee’s packed-full dialogue. Even in the summer-afternoon light by designer Emily Clarkson, the wind-petrified sand shapes of their secluded beach setting (by Barton Bund, who also layers on dreamy, beachy love songs over the surf din of his sound design) are far from tropical; as it turns out, the craggy, imposing oceanfront implied provides the perfect setting for two stunning and inexplicable sea creatures to make landfall – and contact.
The lizard-scaled visitors are Lesley (Steven Alan O’Brien) and Sarah (Julia Garlotte), whose primal physicality is well packaged in iridescent, accent-textured bodysuits and striking aquamarine makeup by costume designer Sarah Lucas. Unfamiliar with life above water and completely alien to the human race, the pair nevertheless communicates in English, both among themselves and with Nancy and Charlie. A tentative and halting interspecies interaction is forged, rife with perceived threats and explanation of concepts from handshakes to mammalian reproduction to machinery.
As Lesley, O’Brien gives his protective petulance a humorous slant as he slyly apes Charlie’s words and facial expressions. An ethereal, sleepy fascination prevails in Sarah, but Garlotte is equally effective in aggression when needed to counter or calm her partner. A pattern of female openness in conflict with male defensiveness is reflected in both couples, as their obvious differences are explained away to reveal baser similarities.
Swiftly passing in two acts, the production has the allegorical feel of a fairy tale. Scientific impossibilities are more or less accepted as fact in this world, making way for a fish-out-of-water story – figuratively and almost literally – of individuals whose growth threatens the security to which they were accustomed. The climax is cleanly arrived at and simply executed, yet it contains layers of intrigue, finally unearthing a vileness in Mitchell’s character manifest in a drive for domestication, his apparent need to punish these innocents with the same consciousness that torments him. Engagingly ambiguous questions are perpetuated in an ending that encourages the viewer to consider the reasons behind the characters’ expressed needs for each other.
In all, this “Seascape” is a thorough examination of a simple, albeit fantastical, premise; Travis and company blend the curious tale at the surface of the text with the many connotations lurking below it. To wit, the exceptional physical performances by O’Brien and Garlotte are lovely to watch and a service to the production, but they never overshadow the emotional and thematic work at hand: the consequences of Lesley and Sarah’s evolution, for themselves and for the abruptly challenged Nancy and Charlie. Even as the story passes with facile ease, the performances carefully disseminate the fascinating issues and philosophies of this complex and provocative show.
Blackbird Theatre, 325 Braun Ct., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Saturday through May 28. $15-$25. 734-332-3848. http://www.blackbirdtheatre.org