American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Edward Albee’s (1928-2016) trenchant view of life, combined with his inventive, creative mind, resulted in plays that are disruptive, adult, intellectual experiences. And his 1975 play “Seascape,” which was awarded one of his three Pulitzer Prizes, is not an exception, but this one includes an optimistic message.

Instead of merely spending relaxing days at the beach in and among sand dunes and beach grasses, there is a life-changing juncture for retired couple Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin, “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday,” “Hedda Gabler”) and Charlie (James Carpenter, “A Christmas Carol,” “Heisenberg”). Their marriage appears to have been successful, except for an unexplained strained seven-month period to which Nancy refers. But as they approach retirement, they see their future quite differently. Nancy is still energetic and explorative while Charlie just wants to rest. To Nancy, moving forward is essential, but to Charlie progress is “a set of assumptions” that will ultimately devolve into nothingness. Nancy wants to live her life to the fullest until she dies, but Charlie is “happy … doing … nothing.”

As they discuss their lives and possible future plans, they are approached by two strange beings — human-sized, upright, green-scaled lizard-people with large tails, who have just crawled out of the ocean. Happily, the male, Leslie (Seann Gallagher) who is exceedingly proud of his oversized tail, and his female mate Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) speak excellent English, although some human concepts are beyond them. After an amusing period in which each twosome is fearful of the other, the four engage in a fascinating discussion about humankind, evolution, life, love, and death.

The lizards have a limited understanding of these concepts. Charlie asks the lizard people why they came up to the beach from the ocean. Sarah explains that they “had a sense of not belonging [under water] anymore.” Nancy and Charlie respond that they are experiencing evolution and “flux,” to which we are all subject. Charlie and Nancy explain technology, tools, and human mating habits to Leslie and Sarah. When the conversation turns to love and death, Sarah is given to understand the pain of loss and death for the first time. This realization, the experience of emotional pain, causes the lizards to want to return to the ocean. But Nancy pleads with them to stay, telling them, “you’ll have to come back … sooner or later.”

It’s not a surprise that ACT’s new Artistic Director, Pam MacKinnon, has chosen to direct an Albee play for her directorial debut. She has abundant experience with Albee’s work; “Seascape” is her 11th Albee production. Her agile facility, control, and ease with Albee’s plays shine in this presentation. The outstanding cast and production staff are also exceptional. The fabulous set and costumes by Scenic and Costume Designer David Zinn make the beach setting seem mesmerizingly realistic, and the lizards just scary enough to be convincing from head to tail. The plane that flies overhead several times sounds authentic and noisy enough to be super-annoying (Sound Designer, Brendan Aanes) and the shadow made as the plane shades the sun is true-to-life (Lighting Designer, Isabella Byrd).

The focus of “Seascape” is the comparison between human consciousness, with its essential awareness of life, love, and death, and the unconsciousness of animals that seem to live their daily lives without cognizance or compassion. Add to this, “Seascape’s” elements of comedy, satire, and absurdism, and you have one of Albee’s more fascinating, engaging, optimistic and happy plays.

By Emily S. Mendel

©Emily S. Mendel 2019    All Rights Reserved.

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