Funk & Wagnalls define "nostalgia" as a "longing for familiar or beloved circumstances that are now remote or irrecoverable." The word sometimes carries a light connotation, simply describing someone a little too attached to things quaintly old-fashioned. This is not the meaning it carries as the title of Lucinda Coxon's new play. The nostalgia that drives this drama is a bitter, paralyzing longing, arising from the death of a relative one is unable to let go.
Nostalgia takes place in Wales in 1919. There we meet two brothers, Tom and Will, who are trying to run their impoverished farm following the death of their parents. Tom is the younger, illiterate one, who is frequently admonished by his older sibling to drink a little less and do the work around the farm. Yet it is Will, superficially the more together of the two, who has the most difficulty coping with the recent loss of their father.
But when Will attends a seance, the message he receives from the spirit world comes not from his father, but, unexpectedly, from the son of a man he has never met. Will sends a letter to that man, informing him of what has been revealed. The man, who is a leading advocate of Spiritualism - the belief that the dead communicate with the living - comes to Wales to speak with Will personally. In his need to understand the untimely death of his son, he desperately wants the message to be legitimate, yet he is a medical man, and his scientific approach to Spiritualism demands verifiable evidence.
He also happens to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as a matter of historical fact, did travel to Wales to see a medium in 1919. The addition of a real person into Coxon's otherwise fictional play complicates matters. In Doyle, Coxon has created a successful urban Victorian man who finds himself drawn into the lives of the locals, but he is not convincing as the man from whose pen flowed the greatest consulting detective in history. Smart, wealthy, and with more important things to do than kill time on a farm, Doyle critically evaluates everything Will tells him, and is the sort of person who says things like "your silence does you credit" without realizing how condescending it sounds. As a catalyst for the story, this Doyle succeeds, but he does not come across as the man whose epitaph reads, "Steel true, blade straight."
The fourth character in this drama is Buddug, a woman who lives across a nearby river. There is an old Welsh tradition of Sin Eating, by which a man would eat bread from atop the chest of a corpse, thereby taking on its sins, and freeing the deceased's soul to heaven. Buddug is the Sin Eater's daughter, forced to be an outcast from the community for all the iniquities her father had accepted. Like most of the community, Will fears and mistrusts her. Tom cares about none of this; he is in love with Buddug, and simply wants to have a future with her, regardless of the past.
The imagery of this play is terrific. Myunghee Cho has designed a versatile set around a rectangular pool of water surrounding a central platform. At times, the pool is the river separating Tom and Buddug, and the platform is irrelevant; at other times, pool and platform work together, with the platform acting as either a raft on the river, or its frozen surface during winter. At one point, the platform represents a dais from which Doyle gives a formal speech on Spiritualism. While, in reality, the pool is not present when Doyle is speaking, its Stygian overtones serve to emphasize the divide Doyle so craves to breach.
Coxon's text is at its best in revelatory monologue, with Will's description of his experience at the seance and Doyle's recount of a dream as the highlights of the play. The show's weakness is its own plot. The play eerily opens with Buddug soliloquizing that someone dreamt about her, and the bulk of the first act casts a spell with its messages from beyond grave and other mystical elements. It is difficult to follow, impossible without the dramaturgical notes about Sin Eating, but it is, at least, effective in creating a feeling of unreality. By the second act, though, most of this is thrust aside, along with Doyle (whose plot never resolves), and the play is just about two brothers fighting each other over their joint future. It almost makes one nostalgic for the first act.
South Coast Repertory, David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director, Martin Benson, Artistic Director, presents the World Premiere of Nostalgia by Lucinda Coxon. Scenic Design by Myungee Cho; Costume Design by Alex Jaeger; Lighting Design by John Martin; Sound Design by Christopher Webb; Dramaturg Jennifer Kiger; Stage Manager Vanessa J. Noon; Production Manager Jeff Gifford; Dialect Coach Joel Goldes; Directed by Juliette Carrillo.
Nostalgia played at the Second Stage of the South Coast Repertory through December 2, 2001.