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Sea Marks

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Xanthe Elbrick and Patrick Fitzgerald.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Long, long ago, way back in the 1960s, in the days before Twitter and Facebook and Skype, people used to carry on long-distance relationships through the now nearly lost medium of letter writing. This is how an Irish fisherman with a touch of the poet in his soul begins his relationship with a woman he met briefly a couple of years earlier, in the Irish Rep's splendidly acted and lovingly directed revival of Gardner McKay's Sea Marks.

Even before the play opens, we are met with a set and background sounds of breaking waves that tell us exactly where we are: a stone cottage by the sea. The cottage is neat and orderly, the abode of a man who leads a solitary and simple existence. His name is Colm, and he begins by giving us enough information about himself so that we know he is a fisherman, that he has never married, that he is middle aged, and that he has been thinking about Timothea ever since he met her at a wedding they both attended.

And so begins an exchange of letters and the budding of a romance that grows slowly but with inevitability. It takes a full year before they move beyond addressing one another by their surnames, but eventually Timothea comes to meet Colm, and he returns with her to her home in Liverpool, where she has been working in a publishing house.

The play focuses on the differences between their idealization of one another and the reality of their separate lives and personalities. The plot turns on a "surprise" that Timothea springs on Colm; she has been saving his letters, with their rich descriptions of his life on the sea, and has had excerpts published in a book she has titled "Sea Sonnets." He is to be made over as the Irish Robert Frost.

Portraying the couple striving to make a go of it are a pair of excellent actors, Xanthe Elbrick (a Tony nominee for Coram Boy) as Timothea and Patrick Fitzgerald as Colm. Both bring a depth of feeling and an honest sense of two middle aged individuals tying to keep their relationship alive, though they truly are from different worlds.

If the ending is predictable, the journey to that ending is not. For that, much credit must go to director Ciarán O'Reilly, who has a touch of the poet himself as he consistently discovers the lifeblood of works like Sea Marks. McKay's play was not particularly well received in previous productions, in part for being perceived as relying heavily on Irish stereotypes: a sense of fatalism, a gift of the gab, and a fondness for the drink. All of these elements do exist within the structure of the play, but every one of them is connected with the truth of the characters' lives, and every one of them is given a twist that takes it out of the realm of cliché. By the time Colm makes his big speech to the members of the literary association—an engagement he would prefer to forego but which he fulfills with integrity—his heart is on his sleeve and our hearts are with him.

The play is not of one tone. It has elements of exuberance, humor, romance, and sadness, but Mr. O'Reilly wisely does not allow any of these to pull us out of the authenticity of Colm and Timothea's lives for the sake of showmanship. Every component of this production has been carefully considered, from Charlie Corcoran's scenic design to M. Florian Staab's sound design to the selection and use of underlying music (Ryan Rumery). Sea Marks has found its home.

Sea Marks
Through June 15
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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