Theater Reviews: On the Shore of the Wide World and Fucking A

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From On the Shore of the Wide World, at the Atlantic. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Simon Stephens’s On the Shore of the Wide World, now playing at Atlantic Theater Company, takes its name from a sonnet by Keats. It’s the kind of play where a character quotes part of the eponymous poem to us, earnestly speaking the title line in the final act. That speaker is Susan Reynolds (Amelia Workman), one of the tertiary bodies orbiting the play’s central planet cluster: the Holmes family, three generations of working-class folk in Stockport, England, all grappling with the sense that, in the face of the incomprehensible massiveness of the universe, their own personal horizons are ever-shrinking.

No one in the Holmes clan has finished his or her A levels — war, work, alcohol, telly, unplanned pregnancies, family tragedy, and teenage wanderlust have gotten in the way — and so it falls to Susan, who went to university and works in publishing, to bring poetry into the picture. (Is this intellectual condescension or an accurate commentary on a family whose limited education constrains their struggles to articulate themselves to each other?) As Susan stands with her contractor Peter Holmes (played with understated depth of feeling by the excellent C.J. Wilson), staring at the house he has just finished restoring for her, she interrupts the routine matter of writing him a check with a sudden recitation from Keats: “On the shore of the wide world, I stand alone and think,” she muses, “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Peter doesn’t respond, at least not verbally, and Susan quickly shakes off the reverie and gets back to business.

The moment is a microcosm of the play as a whole, both in terms of what it’s attempting to do and of what sometimes gets in the way of that attempt. It’s a noble goal that reminds me of the intellectual ambition and reach of Tom Stoppard in plays like Arcadia (though in a very different spirit): Throughout On the Shore of the Wide World, Stephens endeavors to weave threads of existential wonder and terror into the fabric of a workaday family drama. But at times, as with Susan and the lines from Keats, the experience can feel a bit like reading a novel in which someone has underlined a passage and written “THEME” in the margin. The play wants to be moving, it wants to Make You Think, and as a family drama it also wants to be funny in an offhanded “Oh, that’s so real” sort of way. Occasionally it succeeds in these aims: When Peter stands with his son Alex (Ben Rosenfield) on a highway bridge, unable to look him in the eye or to find the right words to keep him from leaving home, you feel the father’s bemused sadness in the pit of your stomach. You also get the humor as the pair rib each other about football. Notably, no Keats is involved — just two men trying to figure out how to speak across the great divide.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Keats per se — it’s just that when the play waxes poetic, we can start to see it straining to affect us. It’s hard to be genuinely moved when you feel that someone is pointing and whispering, Look, this is the moving part. The irony is that Stephens could dispense with the pointing all together. Though he and Keats are wrestling with the same thing — the fear that even our most formative choices and traumas ultimately dwindle into oblivion — the playwright doesn’t need the poet to do his work for him. The twin terrors of mortality and obscurity are already alive in Stephens’s text — they’re “latent,” as the youngest Holmes son, Christopher (in a bright, crisp performance by Wesley Zurick), exclaims at one point, a 15-year-old proudly showing off a vocabulary word. And they are more powerfully present as undercurrents, as anxieties that bubble beneath the well-observed colloquial exchanges between characters rather than as overt thematic statements.

Cases in point: Alex, Christopher’s older brother, starts the play by asking his soon-to-be-girlfriend Sarah (Tedra Millan) to guess the distance to the sun (93 million miles). Alex’s wild-card friend Paul (Odiseas Georgiadis, in a too-brief performance full of semi-menacing swagger) informs us that there are “6 billion people in the world … One don’t mean so much.” Peter gives us the number of stars in the Milky Way (200 billion). John Robinson (Leroy McClain), another satellite on the edge of the Holmes galaxy, tells us about his love of math, because numbers are unquestionable, dependable “in a world where very little actually feels altogether that solid any more.” Christopher muses on whether the Earth will get “sucked into the sun in 5,000 years’ time.” Ellen (Blair Brown), the grandmother of the Holmes clan, worries that her life is done changing in any significant way and therefore, perhaps, just done: “Have you ever done something, or thought something, or acted in some way and known that afterwards your whole life would never be the same again? …’Cause I don’t think I have for a long time.”

Stephens doesn’t need to keep telling us, especially since he’s actually already showing us. Many of his scenes are set in locations that mirror the image of his title. His characters repeatedly stand on the edge of something looking out at something else: on a bridge overlooking a motorway, on a train platform watching for the train, on a hill staring up at the stars, on the stairs in an abandoned hotel gazing at the maze of corridors and empty rooms, ripe for exploration. As they inhabit these spaces, they’re embodying a tension between the wide world they observe — a world “latent with potential”— and the paralysis of ambition that comes with age, as our relationship with the undiscovered country slowly turns from fascination to fear, as the reach of our dreams grows shorter and “could do,” “might do,” “should do” (phrases uttered again and again in this play) fade into the regretful past tense.

It’s in these moments, when play and production allow us simply to witness the Holmes family standing on the metaphorical shore, without restating or underlining their position, that On the Shore of the Wide World expands and breathes. The play is at its most moving when it feels the least need to explain itself, when its frightened, searching characters speak in small terms, of small things — “We could go for a curry”; “You could buy a shirt, though”; “We could just go walking … Just have a walk.”

Of the cast, it is Wilson as Peter, father to Alex and Christopher, who most effectively mines the stores of pathos, yearning, and guilt that lie beneath the text’s seemingly mundane exchanges. His portrayal of a grieving father struggling to find words for his emotions and actions for his desires — other than habitually retreating into football and the pub — is weighty, nuanced, and graceful. He is the most successful at navigating the script’s less subtle flights of symbolism because he remains persistently earthbound. As an actor, he understands what the playwright seems sometimes to grasp and sometimes to mistrust: that the pedestrian, rather than the poetic, is where the play’s true heartbreak lies.

* * *

The Holmes family might not have their A levels, but they’re worlds away from the mostly illiterate populace of Suzan-Lori Parks’s incendiary Fucking A, under the deft direction of Jo Bonney at Signature Theatre. On the Shore of the Wide World is in some senses a play about class, but only insofar as class barriers have implicitly shaped the play’s central family unit. By contrast, Fucking A is an explicit — in at least two senses of the word — examination of the class struggle and its brutalities, eschewing the colloquial and familiar for a mode of theatricality that calls attention to its own artifice. It’s a heightened, dangerous world — and a gut-wrenching one.

Fucking A is the second of two meditations by Parks (she calls them “riffs”) on The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mid-19th-century novel about a woman, Hester, forced by the self-righteous, hypocritical Puritan society she lives in to wear a red “A” as a sign that she’s committed adultery. (Signature is producing these sister dramas concurrently under the banner of “The Red Letter Plays.” In the Blood, which Parks wrote first, is now in previews and opens on September 17.) In its theatrical DNA, Fucking A is closer kin to Brecht than to Hawthorne — indeed, it’s almost as much a riff on Mother Courage and Her Children as it is on The Scarlet Letter.

Like Brecht, Parks builds her world out of archetypes. Her characters are mostly named by their social roles: The Mayor, Butcher, Scribe, Jailbait. She revels in stark, often crass language that cuts across the fourth wall. Her characters speak directly to us and, when impassioned, break into ragged bursts of song providing commentary on their actions and social positions. (The original music and lyrics — which are clever, campy, and harrowing by turns — are also by Parks.) It takes the ear a moment to adjust at the play’s beginning, but Bonney and her actors handle the blunt, clipped rhythms of the text with confidence. They don’t overplay the style, nor do they try to force it into naturalism. They trust that we as an audience will listen and will learn the language. And we do.

Suzan-Lori Parks is obsessed with language — its mutability, its power both to illuminate and obfuscate, its use as a tool of oppression and as a weapon of resistance. In more ways than one, Fucking A is a play on words. According to the playwright, it began as a joke, a pun that Parks found amusing but that had no actual story attached to it (she hadn’t even read The Scarlet Letter when she thought up the idea for an irreverently titled riff). The story came later, after reading Hawthorne and then much writing and rewriting (a process that also birthed In the Blood). Fucking A finally emerged as a fiery, raw-throated shout in the face of hypocrisy, privilege, and injustice.

The play deals in the unspeakable. Its title even appears on the Playbill cover as F*cking A — we still can’t just say it. Its anti-heroine Hester Smith (embodied with fearsome monomania and frighteningly dead eyes by Christine Lahti) is marked with her “A” — a brand seared into the flesh above her heart — as a signifier of the profession that dare not speak its name, a job that’s done in the shadows, making Hester both savior and pariah in her impoverished community. She is an abortionist.

Hester’s best friend Canary Mary is a prostitute, though she currently provides “exclusive rights” to the wealthy Mayor. She and Hester open the play with a sardonic ode to their unmentionable yet indispensable professions, a Kurt Weill–esque ditty called “The Working Woman’s Song.” As Canary Mary, Joaquina Kalukango is rich-voiced and winning, a striking contrast to the flinty, brooding Hester. They are both skilled survivors, but where Hester is iron-willed and obsessive to the point of deep self-delusion, Mary is a flexible, open-eyed pragmatist.

What they share, though, is language — specifically, what Parks calls “Talk,” a kind of pidgin tongue created by the playwright and used only by the women in Fucking A. When the actors speak “Talk,” English subtitles appear on the set’s back wall. In the setting where Hester’s tragedy takes place — “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere”— “Talk” is a means for women to say the things that can’t be said. They use it to discuss all things bodily — sex, menstruation, abortions, anatomy. It’s a language of gossip, joking, and insult that’s also a way to maintain autonomy, a verbal refuge where the demands and dangers of men can’t follow them.

For almost without exception the men of the play’s world are frightening creatures. The Mayor (Marc Kudisch in a teeth-glinting-for-the-camera performance) is a smiling tyrant willing to bump off his seemingly infertile First Lady if it means shacking up with a better breeder. The Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, and Ruibo Qian) are a violent, cocksure trio who make their living — and get their rocks off — catching and torturing runaway criminals. And then there’s Monster, the escaped convict whose reputation for limitless perversion and cruelty makes him the Hunters’ prize bounty. And of course, he’s also the son that Hester lost to prison 30 years ago, the son for whom she allowed the “A” to be cut into her chest — indeed, she took on her ignominious calling in order to make the money to pay his way out of prison.

I would apologize for the spoiler, but Parks’s play traffics not so much in surprise as in inevitability. There’s only one person Monster can be, and there’s only one way Hester’s story can unfold. Her character is the unholy product of two all-consuming forces: her love for her son and her desire for vengeance against the First Lady, who was once the “spoiled little rich girl” that ripped Hester’s child from her by turning the boy in for petty theft. After Hester’s story takes a particularly gruesome turn, her response is to double down on her hatred of the enemy she has long blamed for her suffering. At this moment, as Lahti slumped to her knees with a face like a stone slab, I found myself thinking of other characters whose fierce parental love warps into something horrible in the drive for revenge, notably Titus Andronicus and Sweeney Todd. Indeed, Hester’s grating battle song — “The low on the ladder / The barrel’s rock bottom / Will reach up and strangle the Rich / Then God rot ‘em!” — is her own version of Sweeney’s “Epiphany,” all the way down to the conviction that the human race is made up of those that wear the boots and those that are crushed under the heels. I will have vengeance! I will have salvation! So think both Sweeney and Hester, as they start down the path toward the destruction of all that they love. However, unlike her male counterparts, Sweeney and Titus, Hester doesn’t get to die. The revelation of Parks’s twist on the revenge drama is that there is no release for a woman. No matter what, she has to keep on working.

“The Working Woman’s Song” — which receives a shattering reprise by Hester at the play’s end — and its fellow musical numbers are perhaps the most vital, disturbing elements of Fucking A. The songs are a daring move from a playwright undeterred by the inescapable comparison to Brecht and Weill, and the ensemble members, skilled musicians and singers all, understand the specific vocal demands of these rough-edged, embittered tunes. The superb Brandon Victor Dixon, who has played Aaron Burr in Hamilton, can surely make a song sound beautiful, but here he does the opposite, to terrifying effect, as he sings of the treacherous world that turned him from Hester’s once innocent son into the man known as Monster. “You’d think it’d be hard / To make something horrid / It’s easy,” he croaks — his voice ripping, turning ugly and discordant, as he warns us that “a small bit of hate / In a heart will inflate / And that’s more / So much more / Than it takes / To make you a monster.”

Fucking A is a rare play in our contemporary landscape. It reaches across genres and performance styles — musical, Jacobean revenge play, Brechtian epic theater — drawing on the gifts of a multitalented ensemble to touch something frighteningly prescient about a world twisted by inequity and disenfranchisement, a world in which resentment and hatred can bloom into a cancer. The fiery Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky, in defiance of Hamlet’s famous dictum to “hold a mirror up to nature,” once wrote: “The theatre is not a reflecting mirror, but a magnifying glass” — it can enlarge and, held at the right angle, it can burn. In the hands of Jo Bonney and company, Fucking A both amplifies specific brutal aspects of the society it observes and leaves a smoldering mark.

Theater Review: On the Shore of the Wide World and Fucking A