The play opens with the Clarke family enjoying a happy family time on the beach. Addison (James Lloyd Reynolds), a marine biologist, and his wife Marina (Robin Walsh), an artist, are close with their young sons Harvey (Joe Bender) and Malcolm (C.J. Ketchum). Soon, however, we see that a tragic accident has broken the family, and they try to cope with the death of Malcolm while living a very secluded life on the barren shore of Newfoundland. With his assistant Gilbert (Brett Mack), Addison buries himself in his work: the study of the Architeuthis (a giant squid) and the hope of doing what no one else has done - to discover a live specimen. Marina has been unable to paint and spends her days on the beach staring out at the sea, while her sister Dora (Tami Dixon) offers support. Two portentous events take place on the same day: a live Architeuthis washes up on shore, and a man (Nathan Blew) walks naked out of the sea and approaches Marina. The discovery of these two creatures, and the series of events that are unleashed by them, change the Clarke family irrevocably.
The man goes by the name of Arthur Campbell, yet he is more myth than man. He is the "muckle man," which is described as a character in a folk story. As the myth aspect of the muckle man is slowly realized by Marina, the man aspect is greatly appreciated by Dora, who adds comic relief to the very serious tones of the piece. Dixon is charming and funny, but a little of this character goes a long way, and it's curious that she is in this remote location to support her sister, but just when things get very precarious for the family, she leaves. Marina's acceptance of Arthur, with only mild curiosity, would ring false in a less ethereal play; it adds to Arthur's otherworldliness appropriately here. In his lab, Addison and Gilbert observe equally unreal characteristics and changes in the giant squid, while they enjoy a quick rush of fame for making (or, rather stumbling upon) this unique discovery. The squid, the man from the sea, and the Clarke family all come together at the end of the play in a catastrophic way. If this play is meant to be allegorical, and I don't know that it is, the only lesson to be learned seems to be that "the sea will take what it believes belongs to it."
In many ways, The Muckle Man is a profound study of how one deals with grief. The playwright shows a penetrating understanding when he shows Marina not wanting to be relieved of pain, because it is all she has left of her son. Yet, to me, this understanding is betrayed by the ending of the play, as Marina is cruelly given even more pain. The stories of the squid's transfiguration and the completion of Arthur's quest are parallel, but somewhat unclear. Again, perhaps the playwright is leaving some of this open to our own imaginations, but that doesn't work completely.
The Muckle Man can easily be envisioned in comic book thriller form. Perhaps it is because I know Aguirre-Sacasa is also a comic book writer ("The Sensational Spider-Man"), or perhaps it is because he writes similarly for both media, but I can visualize many of the play's scenes as panels in a comic book - maybe on the page my reservations would be lessened. In either format, The Muckle Man story is a fascinating one, and the choices Aguirre-Sacasa makes are interesting.
The cast is accomplished, though all suffer a bit somewhat two-dimensional characters. Reynolds' Addison is the serious scientist one would expect; he chooses family over science a bit too late, but it is understandable that he is distanced from his wife and finds it easy to become immersed in his work. As Marina, Walsh is numbed by grief and, fantasy or not, the spell Arthur holds over is a bit bizarre, especially compared to Dora's flirty schoolgirl reaction. Blew plays Arthur effectively holds a balance between man and creature. Like Dora, Gilbert seems to be a character that is present to lighten things up. Mack gives a good balanced performance of a role with an odd running joke about no one knowing he was gay before. Young Bender and Ketchum have good stage presence and acquit themselves well as the two sons.
Tony Ferrieri has overpacked the small three-sided stage with a sandy beach, an elevated section representing the home, and a small office/lab. The scenes change frequently and quickly from beach to home to lab, and the playwright's notes say these "multiple locations should be suggested with minimal scenery and furniture." I think less would have been much more here. In the bare-bones reading the City presented of this play last year, the tons of sand and rock were not missed at all. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski is very nicely done, however, and combined with a less elaborate set would have more efficiently let the story be the focus.
This is the debut production of a revised version of The Muckle Man (the play was first presented at Washington, D.C.'s Source Theatre in 2001), and it is ambitious and more than worthy of further development. I look forward to future opportunities to explore the work of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (I may even pick up a copy of "The Sensational Spider-Man").
The Muckle Man, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Tracy Brigden, continues at the City theatre through February 18. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/.