Set in the Nassau County community of Oceanside on Long Island, the play opens on an idyllic scene in the understatedly affluent home of Kevin (Allyn Burrows) and Gwen (Carolyn Baeumler) who are affectionately going through the motions of starting their day. It is a second marriage for both and Gwen is learning the pathways of her new husband's life and domain, even while anticipating a visit from her ex, Tommy (Joey Collins). It doesn't take long for the tranquil facade to recede once he enters the picture and brings disturbing news of their young adult daughter's disappearance.
One is immediately struck by the contrast between Kevin, a buttoned-down, cultured, even-keeled man who is a school superintendent, and Tommy, who is boisterous, rough-around-the-edges and rarely seen without a beer in his hand. Despite his volatility, Tommy is a caring father and wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Ginnie. He raises the alarm about her absence, while Gwen prefers to downplay it as their daughter just being out of touch for a few days. As the divorced couple squares off, Kevin is placed in the uncomfortable position of arbiter and calm voice of reason, almost like a parent with two squabbling children.
As the play progresses, the situation deteriorates, two police detectives (Allan Mayo, Caroline Lawton) are called in, and each of the characters goes deeper into their personal rabbit holes. Without giving away too much, it is less the facts of the story than the decompensation of individuals and the disintegration of relationships that provide the conflict and thus the drama in Oceanside. Gandiello challenges the actors to start on the surface and peel away layer after layer to expose what's at the core of their charactersand they are more than up to the task.
Baeumler traverses a wide arc as a woman who struggles to keep her past in the past and find her comfort zone in unfamiliar territory. She never really seems to fit in Kevin's abode, tastefully realized by scenic designer Judy Gailen, and despite the highly charged exchanges with Tommy, appears to be her authentic self with him. She is a bohemian in comparison to Kevin's vanilla persona and her emotions are all over the place. When she starts to act out, run for cover.
Burrows convincingly captures the bloodless side of Kevin, walking a fine line to avoid being boring by hinting that he'll break out of the tight wrapping. Watch him when he is observing the other actors and realize how much he says without speaking. Kevin has his moments when he shows strong emotions, and Burrows releases the feelings with a measure of control, like gradually letting the air out of a balloon lest it go flying around the room. Tommy is like that balloon and Collins fully inhabits all of his zigs and zags. He is the apparent bad guy, the interloper coming into the happy home and making a mess, but Collins portrays him with a vulnerability that draws our attention and empathy.
Mayo and Lawton are an odd couple; not exactly good cop, bad cop, but he is apologetic and compassionate, while she appears remote and stoical. When they are on the scene, there is palpable discomfort between them and the family trio, although they relate well with each other as partners. Director Melia Bensussen heightens the emotions and tensions in the way she blocks the actors and uses the set. Lighting designer John Malinowski changes the mood and sound designer David Remedios enhances the feeling of being at the shore. Deborah Newhall's costume designs augment the unmistakable class distinctions among the characters.
Beyond the finely tuned performances, attentive direction, and crisp writing, Oceanside works because it is realistic and relevant. Anyone who is a parent can imagine what these people are going through, and anyone who has been in a relationship can appreciate how difficult it is to truly know another person. For that matter, there are things we can't really know (or acknowledge) about ourselves. Gandiello forces his characters to look under the surface, to expose things they've been hiding; by doing so, he suggests that we might do the same.
Oceanside performances through March 8, 2015, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org.
Written by Nick Gandiello, Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic Designer, Judy Gailen; Costume Designer, Deborah Newhall; Lighting Designer, John Malinowski; Sound Designer, David Remedios; Stage Manager, Casey Leigh Hagwood; Assistant Stage Manager, Peter Crewe; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome
Cast (in order of appearance): Carolyn Baeumler, Allyn Burrows, Joey Collins, Allan Mayo, Caroline Lawton