The great Greek tragedians implicitly understood things we've mostly forgotten today. To wit: Unspeakable acts of violence have a far greater impact when the viewer doesn't see them take place. The horrors created in the heart of one who sees not the slaughter of Medea's children but only their lifeless forms, for example, can be matched by no mere mortal writer or director.
In her contemporary spin on the form, The Water's Edge, which just opened at Second Stage, Theresa Rebeck wisely respects this rubric. A handful of heart-rending and bloody acts are related in language almost painfully unadorned, filling the mind's eye with visions far more unthinkable than could be staged.
From Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, however, Rebeck has apparently learned nothing else. Her waterlogged tale of a family breakup and reunion gone terribly wrong is heartless and hokey, dispassionate and distancing. While it ostensibly deals with recognizable feelings - jealousy, abandonment, yearning for revenge - very little in this production, which has been directed with malfunctioning-robot precision by Will Frears, resembles a human tale.
Only Kate Burton, playing scorned wife Helen, comes close. Having been separated from her husband, Richard, for 17 years, Helen has grown fiercely independent and protective of not only his birth home (which she's taken over), but their grown children, Erica and Nate. She's cultivated her sorrow, rage, and tacit acceptance amid foggy circumstances like cranberries in a bog, and Burton captures all the facets of a woman who is herself equal parts sweet and sour.
Veering between the erotic and the maternal, Burton makes dynamic sense of the contradictions on which Helen has constructed her life. Caresses and daggers fight for dominance in every sentence she utters; every glare lovingly appraises as it pierces the skin. You can't pinpoint her thoughts, though you're always keenly aware her mind is always working. Not until she lays all her cards on the table in the waning minutes of the second act does she make known the full breadth of her capabilities.
But while Burton compellingly inhabits this woman who's lost and rejected more than she'd ever admit aloud, she can't make most of the stilted, stuttering dialogue convincing. Rebeck attempts to imbue her characters' speeches with a rhythmic, poetic texture, but all that materializes is a jarring sense of attempted musicality gone awry. Characters tend to omit or repeat words because the lines will sound more artistic that way, not because they're more emotionally attuned expressions.
As Erica's dialogue consists of little more than four-letter words in various combinations, Mamie Gummer generally gets off easy. But when required to dig deeper and darker, she falters and flails as though she'd been tossed in the deep end of a swimming pool before she was ready, and her growth from girl to woman is the production's least convincing transformation. Katharine Powell, as Richard's clueless mistress Lucy, raises agonizing to an art form, but never overcomes her character's at best functional contribution to the plot. As Lucy's dialogue is the most naturalistic and Powell's delivery subdued, Lucy at least sounds like a person.
The same can't be said of Tony Goldwyn and Austin Lysy, who bark their every torturous line with hollow, halting inflections out of place on any professional stage. Lysy's tortured performance might perhaps be explained by Nate's half-witted nature, which - coupled with his insatiable appetite for books - could charitably suggest high-functioning autism. Goldwyn, however, has no such excuse: As the rich and successful Richard, who wants to reclaim the house where he grew up, he never succeeds in either allowing us to see both the sexy and sardonic sides of the man who made and unmade Helen's life, or helping us to understand the connection to a family that truly could not care less whether he lives or dies.
Rebeck doesn't make it easy for him, giving him a role so leechingly unsympathetic that it's surprising he doesn't twirl a moustache and court boos at the curtain calls. The vague threat he represents, of the disrupting of a family unit through the attempted completion of it, also isn't developed enough to draw us to Helen's side. And the interactions between the two, which feature the usual Startling Revelations (precisely timed for our benefit, not theirs, thank you), follow the predictably prescribed tragic course.
But when Euripides explored similar territory, he knew how to pull back and examine the wider spiritual, cosmic, and personal repercussions. Rebeck's lack of a similar gift for providing a broader context for such a narrow-sighted story prevents it from being serviceable as either a modern morality tale or as a taut stage drama. In fact, other than suggesting the highly enticing possibility of Burton as Medea, it's not clear that The Water's Edge succeeds at anything at all.
The Water's Edge