Performance Workshop Theatre revives Gardner McKay's 'Sea Marks'

(Sara Marten/Performance…)
September 30, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Think back, way back, to a time when you wanted to communicate with someone you would like to get to know better.

You look up his or her address in a thick book of thin, white pages (delivered once a year to your doorstep by the sole phone company). Having found the address, you pick up a piece of paper — stay with me now — and a pen.

You write a greeting to the person who has caught your attention. You place said greeting in an envelope you seal and affix a stamp to, before placing in a mailbox down the street. You then wait for a reply. For days.

Welcome to the pre-email, pre-texting, pre-Facebook, pre-Tweeting milieu of "Sea Marks," the two-character play from 1971 by Gardner McKay now on stage in a mostly effective revival at Performance Workshop Theatre.

It's much the same world of another two-character play, A.R. Gurney's "Love Letters" from 1988. That work happens to be enjoying a much-praised return to Broadway featuring different pairings of stellar artists, starting with Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy.

Both bittersweet plays have long been favorites of regional and community theaters — Baltimore's Spotlighters Theatre will present "Love Letters" on Thursday night as a fundraiser for suicide awareness and prevention services.

Gurney fashioned the more persuasive piece, although it consists of two actors sitting onstage reading letters rather than an all-out drama. McKay's play, which starts off using a similar device, loses steam as it turns into a more conventional play about an unlikely, uneasy relationship.

"Sea Marks" also has the dual burden of implausibility and predictability. Even if the play were set in the 19th century, it might raise eyebrows. It certainly is tough to swallow as a 1970-ish tale, and McKay's tendency to signal in advance where the plot is heading takes the edge off of things.

The Performance Workshop Theatre staging, directed by company co-producing artistic director Marlyn G. Robinson, does not disguise these weaknesses, but manages to keep things engaging.

The story revolves around Colm Primrose (Marc Horwitz), a virginal, middle-aged Irish fisherman. He starts a correspondence with the younger Timothea Stiles (Katherine Lyons), a publishing house employee from Liverpool with "city eyes" who once visited Colm's remote corner of Ireland.

Bit by bit, the two are drawn together. Timothea finds in her pen pal's letters the stuff of Robert Frost-like poetry, with lots of lively imagery about the sea and sky. Colm gathers the courage to leave his village life and move in with Timothea, who helps get his correspondence published in sonnet form.

The resulting publicity does not exactly lead to happiness for the odd couple. This fish-out-of-water tale can only end one way.

Horwitz, the company's other co-producing artistic director, does his usual well-studied work. He is at his best conveying Colm's growing suspicion that people view him as some sort of "primitive"; the scenes of rage have considerable weight.

But the actor's typically deliberate delivery style, with pauses for punctuation and some fussy vowel-elongation, takes a toll. His Irish accent needs a less droopy, more musical pitch, too.

Lyons gives an assured portrayal of Timothea that helps reveal how this woman could be drawn to a sensitive, naive Irishman who has such "a sadness in [his] happiness."

The production, with an efficient set (Sean Urbantke) and telling costumes (Mary Bova), could use greater momentum. But, at its best, this "Sea Marks" provides a diverting exploration of the vagaries of love, and, above all, a welcome reminder of the power once invested in that now-quaint art of letter-writing.

Performances run through Oct. 12.

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