As Winston Churchill might describe it, Theresa Rebeck’s play “The Water’s Edge” is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” There are more mixed emotions, contradictions, outright lies, duplicity, passion and chills in this dramatic masterpiece than in any play you’re likely to see in this decade.
The theme is family. And the effect a death can have on a family. And the long-term consequences.
As the play opens, Richard (Albie Selznick), a selfish, insensitive man if ever there was one, has returned to the family home he abandoned some 17 years ago. Moreover, he has brought his 26-year-old girlfriend with him. His aim: to reconnect with his children and to reclaim the lakeside house he grew up in.
As might be expected, his wife Helen (Nicole Farmer) is not exactly thrilled to see him. Nor is his daughter Erica (Paris Perrault), who is nearly the same age as his current girlfriend, Lucy (Lauren Birriel). His son Nate (Patrick Rieger), however, is caught in the middle of a jumble of emotions that he can neither control nor express. At such times, he says, his brain “goes white.”
Nate, though not demonstrably retarded, is awkward in his movements and his speech and in his aversion to social intimacy. (Later, when his mother kisses him passionately on the lips you get a spine-tingling sense of the pressure she must have put on him throughout the 19 years he has lived with her.)
Helen, it turns out, is not the put-upon mother that she seems. She has never revealed to her children that she has prevented Richard from being part of their lives, nor that Richard has sent money regularly for their support. Further, she has never told them that he hadn’t abandoned them, but that she, blaming him for an accidental death, had forced him to leave.
The family trauma centers on the lake that borders their property, just a short distance down through the woods. But Richard, unheeding of his family’s persistent dread, rhapsodizes nostalgically about his boyhood adventures on the lake. And Lucy, knowing nothing of its history, goes for a swim.
While Richard eventually wins over his kids, Helen maintains her anger, resentment and distance. As Richard challenges her memories and tries to vindicate himself, she challenges him with her own version of the “facts.” Which of them is lying and which of them has had a memory lapse?
There are so many twists and turns in this riveting play, and layer upon layer of questions and contradictions, that it’s impossible to comment any further.
Suffice it to say that all the production qualities are award-worthy. (Not unusual for The Road Theatre Company’s productions.) That includes Theresa Rebeck’s magnificent dialogue and Sam Anderson’s strong direction. The actors, too, do a pitch-perfect job as the drama heats up and their emotions go out of control. And Desma Murphy’s set design of the little house in the big woods delightfully captures the untidy, leaf-strewn ambiance of a New England lakeside cottage.
The Water’s Edge is definitely a play you don’t want to miss. It’s the kind of play that everyone stands outside and talks about after it’s over. And how many plays like that do you get in any given year?
“The Water’s Edge” will continue at the Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 10. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.RoadTheatre.org for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.