The thought that an Edward Albeean couple – George and Martha, if they had been mellow and sober – would, on a summer’s afternoon spent on the beach, meet up with two enormous lizard-like sea creatures who would also be a bickering husband-and-wife team pondering the meaning of their lives is so whimsical that it’s easy to ignore the despair and invocation of death which lies beneath it. But director Steven Scott Mazzola, in American Century Theater’s excellent production of this Pulitzer-winning play, ignores nothing, and as a result gives us a richly textured, subtly observed, exquisitely satisfying presentation of an important piece of American theater.
One of the things that Albee does best is use dialogue to show character; and by the first couple of sallies between Charlie (Craig Miller) and Nancy (Annie Houston), their backstories seem to be revealed to us They appear to be retired, with children grown and out of the house, and they are very much on different tracks. Charlie seeks a surcease from care, and craves the right to do nothing – nothing except, perhaps, to read his magazine, which Nancy angrily snatches out of his hands. For her part, Annie is itching to do anything which will bestir her blood and shake up her world – including a lunatic scheme to spend the rest of their lives moving from beach to beach.
On one level this may be an observation about contemporary sex roles (the first production was in 1975), since Charlie seems to be in retreat from a demanding job and Nancy shows signs of escaping the narrowness of home and children after years of confinement. But the play is tinged with a deeper sadness, as well. The thought of death is never too far away, and on this beach-blessed afternoon Charlie recalls a cherished childhood memory: when he would walk out naked into the Long Island Sound carrying a pair of heavy rocks, sinking down fifteen feet or so, surrounded by sea grasses and the indifferent fish. This was an act of wonder, certainly, but it was also an act of oblivion, and Charlie, despite Nancy’s urgings, will not do it again.
The sad, evocative, absolutely authentic dialogue between Charlie and Nancy dominates the first Act until its final minutes, and it is given full justice by Miller and Houston, who seem to have been created specifically to play these roles. In addition, American Century’s technical support is as good as I’ve ever seen it: Hannah J. Crowell’s clever set is perfect at audience distance, and Matt Otto’s sound and Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting plot are so good that you can almost smell the salt air that washes over the beach. Griffin does a particularly clever and thoughtful thing: he periodically dims some of the lights, to capture the effect of a cloud passing over the Sun. This is not typically something that productions think about, and it adds to the hyper-realistic atmosphere that Albee’s strong dialogue and Miller and Houston’s excellent work creates.
Here’s something else that adds to the hyper-realistic atmosphere: giant talking lizard-like creatures crawl out of the Ocean and ask Charlie and Nancy questions about their creeds, their values, and (with some apprehension) their food choices. Oh, consider the boldness of a playwright who introduces that into his drama, and consider what it could become in lesser hands – farce, or comedy, or absurdism, or even eye-rolling science fiction. But Albee insists that it remain a drama, as pointed and honest as it was before the lizards arrived, and Mazzola, to his great credit, complies.
Nancy and Charlie are terrified when they first encounter the creatures, as any of us would be, and they respond by acting ridiculously, as most of us would. The creatures, Leslie (Brian Crane) and Sarah (Mundy Spears) are terrified, too, but once they conclude they are safe, they are overwhelmed with curiosity – as most of us would be, too. It may seem odd that ten minutes after so fantastic an encounter, the principals are discussing mating practices, but do not underestimate the resilience of human spirit. We have our cosmology shaken up all the time, and in ways even more radical than Albee imagines here. Our curiosity always overwhelms our disbelief, and when Sarah and Leslie compare life experiences with Charlie and Nancy, it becomes almost ennobling.
This exchange sheds considerable insight on the human condition, and also on the lizard-like creature condition, since there are few better perspectives from which to view one’s life than from completely outside it. To a certain extent, biology is destiny; Sarah, who has laid over seven thousand eggs, cannot fathom Nancy’s attachment to her three children. Indeed, Sarah and Leslie have lived the sort of life that Charlie and Nancy dream about: under the waves, they swim from beach to beach, all over the world. Yet it is they who have come out of the water, rather than the other way around.
This production’s complete commitment to Albee’s intent shines through the second Act, which would otherwise be calamitous. Crane and Spears assume their characters without an ounce of condescension, or false nobility, or anything but the utmost authenticity. Their magnificent costumes (Melanie Clark) mark them as creatures beyond our knowledge and experience; the fine makeup (Lynn Sharp-Spears) allows us to identify them as sentient creatures – much different than us, but not alien.
There are a dozen ways in which this complex, beautiful play could go wrong. American Century has done it right, and as a result has put on one of its best productions ever.
By Edward Albee
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola
Produced by American Century Theater
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.