Category: Archive

Theater Review Passing ‘Marks’ at IAC

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

SEA MARKS, by Gardner McKay. Directed by Richard Scully. Starring Brian Oh Eachtuigheirn and Sara MacDonnell. At Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St., NYC. Through Jan. 31.

Gardner McKay’s "Sea Marks" turns out to be a remarkably durable work. First produced in New York in 1971, the two-character romance has been periodically revived and restaged by, among others, the Irish Repertory Theatre and the Manhattan Theatre Club, and has been filmed for television at least once.

Now it’s back again, although only briefly, in a careful, loving, but rather peculiar production by the Irish Arts Center, where it will run only through the 31st of this month, playing Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with matinees on Sundays at 3 p.m.

Written by an actor who gained matinee idol status in the 1960s as the star of a popular television series, "Adventures in Paradise,’ "Sea Masks" concerns an earnest but ill-fated encounter between a lonely fisherman from Cliffhorn Heads, an island McKay placed off the western coast of Ireland, and a lonely young Welshwoman, divorced or separated from her English husband and working for a publishing house in Liverpool.

The pair had met, or at least glimpsed each other, when the woman, Timothea Stiles, had been a guest at a wedding celebrated on the island where the fisherman, Colm Primrose, lives. The play begins, after a lyrical, near-musical soliloquy in which the fisherman describes his world, when Primrose, acting on impulse, writes a letter to Timothea, whom he’s certain won’t remember him, but whom he is nevertheless unable to get out of his mind and his memory.

Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo

Subscribe to one of our great value packages.

In the play’s printed text, McKay states that Primrose should be played "between the ages of 35 and 65," and that "Timothea’s age should rise in proportion to his," having suggested earlier that she is a lady "not much younger than Colm."

The printed play cites Colm’s age as 35, with a footnote commenting "subject to casting, of course." Colm, in the text, describes himself as "a 35-year-old spinster man," but in the current production, the wily wizened, oddly appealing actor playing the fisherman, Brian Oh Eachtuigheirn, flips the digits and describes himself as "53" which is still something of a stretch.

Timothea Stiles, on the other hand, is played by the extravagantly glamorous Sarah MacDonnell, who appears to be at least young enough to play her co-star’s daughter. There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about casting, and the suggestions of playwrights are more often ignored than they are adhered to.

Nevertheless, actress MacDonnell, whose bio suggests that she is "probably best known for her Subaru commercials with Paul Hogan," comes up with a Timothea far too sophisticated, not to mention much too nervously self-involved, ever to become even remotely enamored of a grizzled islander at the very least one full generation her senior.

With Timothea played as an urban neurotic encountering a Colm so far along in years, the play’s romantic chemistry is reduced to virtually zero, requiring the audience to engage in what theatrical textbooks routinely refer to as "willing suspension of disbelief."

This particular incarnation of "Sea Marks,’ directed by Richard Scully, apparently toured Nova Scotia before coming to the Irish Arts Center in an appealing production, designed by the director, comprised of Timothea’s Liverpool flat and a fragment of Colm’s island.

There are contrivances at the heart of "Sea Marks." Timothea somehow manages to convert Colm’s letters into verses which she shepherds into a tidy little volume entitled "Sea Sonnets," without ever informing the author until she presents him with a brightly jacketed copy of the book. "What’s a sonnet?" he asks, and when Timothea tells him, he says he might have preferred "Sea Voices," or even "Sea Marks," in honor of the black lines left on coastal racks by high tides.

If there’s no genuine sexual chemistry or authentic emotion between the two isolates McKay has created for his play, what’s left is, above everything else, the writer’s rich lyrical bent, with fanciful images ebbing and flowing like the sea, sometimes decidedly awkward in their abundance.

Actor Oh Eachtuigheirn, who sometimes, it seems, answers to the name Brian Heron, was one of the founders of the Irish Arts Center some 25 years ago. Since then, he has lived, among other places, on Canada’s Cape Breton Islands.

With his shaggy gray mane and thick eyebrows virtually obliterating any possibility of a clear view of the eyes lurking well behind his heavy brow, the actor is an utterly fascinating stage creature, spry and wiry, almost goat-like as he ambles around director Scully’s evocative, although very slightly cramped set.

With casting this bizarre and this uneven, "Sea Marks" remains what it always was at heart, the theatrical equivalent of a bit of fiction from a ladies’ magazine, a rather novelettish two-hander, enriched by a lyrical streak in its writing that reaches for, and sometimes actually attains, a kind of middlebrow poetry of expression.

No wonder then that the play has been given something over 100 productions around the country and elsewhere. What theater group, amateur or professional, wouldn’t be attracted to a two-actor play with roles ideally filled by performers approaching middle age but still possessing sufficient amatory fire to fuel an appealingly dreamy romance? Add to that another plus: "Sea Marks" requires a single setting, its requirements easily satisfied through use of the kind of furniture and fittings any production group owns or can easily borrow.

The considerable charms of "Sea Marks" are abundantly on view at the Irish Arts Center, even though the casting is slightly questionable.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese