Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

By the Water
Spreckels Theatre Company
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of The Ladies of Broadway, A Number and Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies and Jeanie's review Noises Off

Mike Pavone, Mark Bradbury, Jared N. Wright, and
Mary Gannon Graham

Photo by Jeff Thomas
Spreckels Theatre Company delivers a standout production of Sharyn Rothstein's play By the Water, which garnered very good reviews in its Off-Broadway debut in 2014. Locals from New York and New Jersey certainly could relate to the context—set in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that hit the Eastern seaboard in 2012, the play opens family dynamics affected by a life-changing disaster, with ringing insight and heartfelt humor. Certainly it's now timely for many Sonoma County residents as well, but the play is not only for disaster victims. Rothstein's keen take on family and Spreckels' praiseworthy production present an intriguing and engrossing tale of destruction, recovery and redemption. This Bay Area premiere deserves your attention.

Marty and Mary Murphy (Mike Pavone and Mary Gannon Graham) return to their storm-ravaged home as soon as the waters from Hurricane Sandy have receded, finding devastation and debris, but the fridge still works and the house is somewhat livable. They immediately begin cleaning up, and there is no question they will rebuild. This is, as Marty says, their place, where they know everyone and everyone knows them, their community, their home. After all, this is where they raised two sons, put down roots, and planned for the future. Their senses of humor and their will to overcome adversity intact, they set about renewing their commitment to their home.

But it's as if a bomb has been set off in the family relationships as well as the home. As oldest son Sal (Mark Bradbury) returns to help, the frosty reception he gets from dad clues us in to past grievances. Sal has moved to Manhattan, married, and become a successful internet entrepreneur, but, instead of pride, Marty displays resentment and contempt. When Brian (Jared N. Wright) shows up, he's clearly the favorite, despite having just been released from two years in prison for drug-related crimes.

Tempers flare over whether Marty and Mary should rebuild or move—Sal is determined they should move, while Brian chooses to support whatever Marty wants. Best friends Andrea and Phil (Madeleine Ashe and Clark Miller), whose home was completely destroyed, arrive. They're living with family temporarily, and have decided to sign up for a government buyout offer so they can move. What's the point of rebuilding, they ask, when the next storm will just repeat the devastation? And why rebuild in a place where the entire community has been wiped out, erased from the map? The couples argue, and Mary might consider this option, were it not for Marty's fierce opposition to the buyout and determination not to leave their family home.

We shortly find out reasons why Marty is so insistent—the past rears its head, old wounds that were never fully healed are opened again, and it's hard to see what's more painful, the devastation from the storm or the family being ripped apart by secrets, lies, and failure to connect. On the one hand, Rothstein seems to veer sharply from the theme of disaster recovery in order to focus on family drama. But perhaps it's a cautionary tale, after all, showing how such a calamity can rock relationships to their core. The best and the worst, the desire to bond together and the threat of being torn apart, all is revealed, all thrown into question and nothing is safe anymore. The home's moldering, unlivable structure becomes a powerful symbol of the family's difficulties, and they must find a way back to each other before any true "recovery" can happen. In a sense, the most important rebuild is of the relationships they cherish.

It's surprisingly compelling, especially in the capable talents director Carl Jordan has assembled on stage. Pavone and Graham are entirely believable as a long-married couple who have a deep-seated love and respect for each other but who must brave hard challenges. Bradbury and Wright carve very distinct characters for each son and deftly reveal their vulnerabilities over time. Neighbors Miller and Ashe each have their chance to shine, acknowledging their abiding friendships even while defying Marty's obstinance. Their younger daughter Emily, played by Katie Kelley, rekindles a youthful alliance with Brian, and gets to deliver a central monologue about regret and life choices. The budding of their renewed relationship provides a welcome distraction from the rebuild/buyout argument that takes too long to resolve.

Scenic design by Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano puts us squarely in the ravaged home, with effective realistic touches. However, are they really sitting on a wet, moldy sofa for days after? And the downstage door creates some sightline issues. Eddy Hansen's lighting design nicely captures the storm and the dim aftermath. Costumes by Marcy Bethel Frank give us a good sense of the economic status of the characters, and a working class milieu close to a beachfront. Jessica Johnson's sound design is superb, with appropriate scene change music that punctuates the action.

It's a terrific production, with a thoughtful, provocative, and even humorous script, animated by a first-rate cast. You won't want to miss this one.

By the Water, through April 8, 2018, by Spreckels Theatre Company, at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Condiotti Theatre, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park CA. Tickets $16.00-$28.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 707-588-3400.

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