By Donna Herman
I’m not quite sure why the Atlantic Theater Company chose to stage this revival of Simon Stephens’ 2005 work On the Shore of the Wide World. It’s not a bad play, it’s just…average, and overlong. It certainly isn’t up to what we expect from Mr. Stephens after his two latest productions on this side of the pond, Heisenberg and The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time. What saves this production is the fine acting by the entire cast.
On the Shore of the Wide World is a saga that follows three generations of one family through a crisis that reveals some long-hidden secrets. Unfortunately, there’s nothing very fresh or revelatory here, although Mr. Stephens has drawn his characters very well. And it is certainly a well-established idea that seeing that your troubles are shared by others can have a mitigating effect on them. So those old family nightmares of alcoholism and abuse, while unfortunately not a new or shocking story, do bear repeating.
Although the characters are interesting, well-drawn, and superbly acted, the pace of the play is slow. We are introduced to the youngest members of the family first, Alex Holmes (Ben Rosenfield) and his girlfriend Sarah Black (Tedra Millan) teenagers on a bus on their way back from an evening out in Manchester, England a few miles north of their home in the suburb of Stockport. Ben Rosenfeld plays Alex with just the right touch of stiff awkwardness and burning teenage angst that makes you want to alternately hug him and tell him everything will be alright, and smack him upside the head and tell him to get over himself. When he finally comes apart at the point he knows he’s caused his parents so much pain and admits how he feels, it’s an awful wrenching moment that tears us all apart.
Sadly, we never get the moment with Sarah where we learn her secrets. But we know she has them. Tedra Millan does a wonderful job of capturing her captivating free spirit that has an undertone of desperation and a steely determination to get away from her demons. We understand how she charms Alex’s parents Alice (Mary McCann) and Peter (C.J. Wilson), who are wary and nervous about meeting their son’s first girlfriend, let alone apprehensive about giving their permission for a sleepover. And we certainly see how Alex’s younger brother Christopher (Wesley Zurick) becomes immediately smitten with Sarah, as well as overzealous bordering on inappropriate. Wesley Zurick’s Christopher is a masterpiece of eager younger brother bordering on psychopath.
C.J. Wilson and Mary McCann are heartbreaking as Alex and Charlie’s lost parents. Mary McCann’s anguish as Alice when Alex tells her he’s going to live in London is painful to watch. As is C.J Wilson’s stoic, stiff-upper-lip goodbye at the train station. And in the scene at the end where they are sitting under the stars and really talk openly with one another, I was holding my breath and praying that they would get it right. Likewise, Peter Maloney and Blair Brown as Charlie and Ellen Holmes, Peter’s parents, are superb. These veteran, award-winning actors both inhabit their roles – utterly convincing.
Regrettably, the plot meanders and twists and turns for almost three hours and then ends with an abrupt whimper. In the third to last scene, in a confrontation between Alex and his granddad Charlie, what appears to be the moral of the story gets flung out to Alex by Charlie. “I’ll tell you something. Peter is a much, much better dad to you than I was to him. And if you ever have a kid I bet you a thousand pounds that you’ll be a better dad to your kid than Peter is to you. But I was a better dad to Peter than my dad was to me. You might say I couldn’t have been any worse. But even so. It counts.”
On the Shore of the Wide World by Simon Stephens, directed by Neil Pepe
WITH: Ben Rosenfield (Alex Holmes); Tedra Millan (Sarah Black); C.J. Wilson (Peter Holmes); Mary McCann (Alice Holmes); Peter Maloney (Charlie Holmes); Blair Brown (Ellen Holmes); Wesley Zurick (Christopher Holmes); Amelia Workman (Susan Reynolds); Odiseas Georgiadis (Paul Danziger); Leroy McClain (John Robinson).
Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Sarah Laux; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Original Music and Sound Design by David Van Tiegham; Fight Choreography by J. David Brimmer; Dialect Coach, Stephen Gabis; Production Stage Manager, Hannah Sullivan; Assistant Stage Manager, Avery Trunko; Casting by Telsey + Company. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, Artistic Director; Jeffory Lawson, Managing Director. Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through October 8th. For tickets: Order online at atlantictheater.org, by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111, or in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20 Street between 8 and 9 Avenues).