NEW YORK—Family relationships can be a tricky dance of unconditional love, painful understandings, and harsh realities. Simon Stephens’s quietly involving “On the Shore of the Wide World,” now at the Atlantic Theater Company, makes this case.
Originally presented in Manchester, England, in 2005, the work may not cover any new ground or make any sweeping statements, but it succeeds brilliantly, in that every moment comes across as real.
Peter (C.J. Wilson) and Alice (Mary McCann) have been married for almost 20 years and have long since fallen into a routine that leaves little room for discussing serious issues. Yet issues still linger from the time when Alice was pregnant with their son, Alex (Ben Rosenfield), while she was herself a teenager. She forsook her own plans for the future to marry Peter and raise a family.
The opening scene finds the two preparing to meet Sarah (Tedra Millan), a girlfriend of the now 18-year-old Alex and the first girl he has ever brought home to meet them. Sarah will also be spending the night in Alex’s room—though Alex’s 15-year-old brother, Christopher (Wesley Zurick) may have something to say about that. Christopher has developed a huge crush on Sarah and has decided he’s much better boyfriend material than Alex.
Meanwhile, Peter’s parents are facing far more serious issues. His father, Charlie (Peter Maloney), drinks to excess and is not above using emotional and physical intimidation on his wife, Beth (Blair Brown).
Peter is angry about Charlie’s shortcomings as a father and blames him for running the family business into the ground. Peter also can’t understand why his mother continues to stay with Charlie after all he’s put her through.
Stephens has done a brilliant job in making these characters resonate so strongly. From the awkwardness between Alex and Sarah during a moment of intimacy, to Christopher trying to explain his “love” for Sarah to his dad—and Peter’s subsequent advice—each situation makes one want to know more about the people involved.
The play also doesn’t shy away from more uncomfortable moments, particularly when the actions of one generation are felt by the next. Charlie tells Alex how Peter is a much better father than he ever was and how, if Alex ever decides to have kids, he would be a far better father than Peter. Charlie also points out how he was a better dad to Peter then Charlie’s own father was to him.
Also affecting are the moments when Peter and Alice find themselves turning to others in the wake of a personal tragedy.
Running through the story are issues of truthfulness and perception. Many of the conversations present half-truths in matters the audience has already seen. Minor but significant altering of the facts is a way the characters try to shade the truth to their own advantage.
Maloney is absolutely brilliant as the outwardly jovial Charlie, who is filled with rage and bitterness—emotions that spill over onto his wife and son.
Millan is very good as Sarah, a strong-willed young women who initially gives off an impression (due in part to the clothes she wears, but also the attitude she projects) that’s very different from who she turns out to be.
Rosenfeld works well as Alex, a young man trying to find his way in the world and, like Sarah, is sometimes too impatient to get there.
Wilson and McCann have a wonderful chemistry as Peter and Alice, a salt-of-the-earth couple who’ve drifted apart but still share a deep bond. Wilson gives a rather prophetic remark when saying how it’s far easier to stay at home and lose yourself in something mindless (such as reality TV) than it is to change the direction of your life.
Zurick does well as the impetuous, hormone-driven Christopher. His actions toward Sarah come across as almost endearing.
The only character not reaching their full potential is Peter’s mom Ellen. There is not enough of a back story for Brown to make her as interesting as she could be.
Neil Pepe’s direction is quite strong. The story unfolds with a slow, deliberate pace that allows the audience get to know the characters—especially true when it comes to the characters of Susan Reynolds (Amelia Workman) and John Robinson (Leroy McClain), who offer Alice and Peter an important outlet for certain unresolved issues.
Probing, intimate, and deliberately untidy, “On the Shore of the Wide World” (the title taken from a John Keats sonnet) shows just what the concept of “family” can entail. At the same time, it examines the joy, comfort, pain, and responsibility that go with it.
Also in the cast is Odiseas Georgiadis.
‘On the Shore of the Wide World’
Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or AtlanticTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Oct. 8
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.