Personal, funny, poetic, rough around the edges – Bob Bartlett’s Swimming with Whales is well worth checking out while it’s at 1st Stage as I predict it will have life beyond its northern Virginia run.
Bartlett lost his only sibling, a younger brother, to leukemia, more than 20 years ago. As written in the play’s program notes, Bartlett said, “It wasn’t until completing my MFA in Playwriting at Catholic University that I decided to write a play about grieving, which became a play about healing,” beginning a ten year odyssey of writing and discovery.
“[Audiences] are looking to retreat and regroup and reenergize. Sometimes we do that at the beach, and sometimes in a theater.” Bob Bartlett talks to DCTS about his play and its roots.
You may have seen a version of the play in development at Signature Theatre, the Kennedy Center and Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. Now at home in 1st Stage’s intimate venue for its world premiere, Swimming with Whales shows us what a bumpy road the healing process can be, especially when it comes to family. Bartlett gives us really two families: one by blood and the other an intentional family.
Let’s start with the intentional family, part of the prequel as it were, years before the late summer of 1983, the play’s actual time frame. Nearly two decades before, a group of young people enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle on the beaches of Nantucket Island. Two guys and two gals, communing with nature and making a paradise of their time together. Among the foursome, Patrick and Anne end up having a baby together, Owen, whose birth was by the seaside, plunged into the ocean moments after his delivery, with the help of Hoagie, the other male among the group. Rounding out the hippie family is Grace.
Bartlett sprinkles exposition throughout Swimming with Whales, making for an interesting building of the relationships and inner conflicts among the players. After spending his youngest years on the beach with the others, Owen is taken away by Anne to live in Boston, separate from the others. Grace becomes a park ranger, still overseeing the beach, while Patrick and Hoagie live together, perhaps as lovers. Time and distance further divides the father and son relationship between Patrick and Owen.
When we first meet Patrick – a charming and complex portrayal by Matthew R. Wilson – he is on his beloved beach, drunk off of his ass and in handcuffs. The cuffs are courtesy of his old friend (and caretaker) Grace, played with acerbic wit and a no-nonsense directness by Jessica Lefkow. It’s not giving too much away to share that Patrick is grieving the death of Hoagie but the reason he ends up in handcuffs is a hot little twist by Bartlett I won’t spoil.
Hoagie’s death brings Anne and Owen back to the island and this is where the play really takes off. Teresa Castracane gives a nuanced performance of a mother dealing with a distant and troubled son. As Owen, Ethan Miller turns in a powerful turn as the angry, sarcastic, resentful youth who has decided he is all but allergic to sand. Owen spews hateful words about Patrick and about his relationship with the late Hoagie. To be honest, the play’s dialogue is correct for the early 1980s, when a teenager would openly make gay slurs and think nothing of it.
Once Owen is back on the island with Patrick, healing process begins as the two characters, practically strangers when the reunite, peel away the layers of their own pain.
And what of the title? That is where the poetry and lyricism come into play, a beautiful convention by Bartlett and his director, Alex Levy, assisted by design work by Kathryn Kawecki’s set design and the lighting design by Robbie Hayes. Kawecki’s ramshackle cottage would look right at home on any secluded beach, surrounded as it is here by several truckloads of sand. The bold design of the water is achieved by a curtain of netting, interwoven with strips of brilliant blue that cascade down from the ceiling, as lighting offers a painterly touch. The effect is simple yet stunning.
Swimming with Whales
closes June 24, 2018
Details and tickets
Young Owen does indeed swim with the whale, as does Patrick, with varying results. Embodied by the lithe and expressive Nate Shelton, Ketos – a young, humpback whale – communes with Owen in the simplest ways, serving as a conscience and allowing the teen’s angst to float away, at times, in the ocean’s depths. The connection between Owen and Ketos may be stylized with evocative lighting and movement, but it is no less real and touching.
My one quibble with Swimming with Whales is length. While not repetitive, some portions of dialogue take longer than perhaps is necessary. However, I firmly believe the play will have continued success.
As the blood family heals and the intentional family regrows its roots along the sands of Nantucket, we see a poignant, at times hilarious, journey of healing and reconciliation. Bartlett weaves a whale of tale; one that is worth sharing.
Swimming with Whales by Bob Bartlett . Directed by Alex Levy . Cast: Teresa Castracane, Jessica Lefkow, Ethan Miller, Nate Shelton, and Matthew R. Wilson . Scenic design by Kathryn Kawecki . Costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny . Lighting design by Robbie Hayes . Sound design by Sarah O’Halloran . Stage manager: Joshua Stout . Produced by 1st Stage . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.