Seascape by Edward Albee, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s current production playing at the Madison Street Studio Theatre, is fascinating on so many levels. The play failed at the box office in 1975 yet the absurdist comedy won a Pulitzer Prize for its playwright. Though there isn’t really much of a plot, this is an often hilarious and thought-provoking work. The strong Festival production, perfectly paced by director Stephanie Shaw, features a terrific four-person cast.
The witty drama is set on a deserted section of a seaside sand dune. A long-married vacationing couple, relaxing after a picnic lunch, reflect back on their life together. They bicker about how they should be spending their golden years. They still love each other, but both feel a gnawing dissatisfaction.
Now that their kids are grown and gone, feisty Nancy (Mary Michell) is restless, wanting to travel and have new experiences. But newly retired Charlie (Jack Hickey) just wants to stay home and take it easy. Nancy seeks change and needs to explore. But Charlie, a bit of a curmudgeon, prefers passivity. Though Nancy is vibrant and passionate, she won’t stray from her husband.
This couple is not as ferocious and dysfunctional as George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? yet there are some distinct parallels.
Albee doesn’t provide much back story. The pair mentions adult children and grandchildren, but we don’t really learn anything about them.
Suddenly they are joined on the dune by a pair of highly evolved, human-sized sea lizards who have crawled up on shore. This seems to be their first venture onto dry land. They’re fearsome-looking, with green gills and huge tails.
This second couple is hardly a younger mirror image of Nancy and Charlie, but they too seem restless and rather unfulfilled.
Though initially they appear threatening, these humanoid lizards actually are friendly and speak English.
Sarah (Alee Spadoni) and Leslie (Dan Toot) may be lizards, but they’re looking for a life more exciting than spending all their time in the sea. They no longer want to hang out with their mute underwater fellows. They are inquisitive, articulate, and perfectly likable.
Sarah is rather Nancy-like — open-hearted and chatty. But Leslie is more guarded, macho, and domineering. Albee’s play, written in the mid-1970s, seems to reflect the still evolving feminist perspective. The females of both species defer to their mates but are not content in that role.
The actors completely inhabit their lizardness, blinking, their tongues darting out rather scarily when they first crawl up the dune. As they slither, pose, and preen, Spadoni and Toot are quite fun to watch.
Sarah and Leslie have some gaps in their knowledge, since they’ve just emerged from a life in the water. They don’t understand handshakes, for instance; they don’t have hands. So Nancy and Charlie attempt to explain human anatomy, behavior, and emotions.
The two couples banter about their breeding habits. Sarah lays hundreds of eggs at a time.
The first act, which seems a bit talky, illustrates how relationships can deteriorate over the long haul. The rest of the play illustrates that later in life partners perhaps need one another more intensely than when they were young.
Seascape will no doubt generate some interesting discussions. The drama seems to say that older women embrace change more easily and seek adventure more readily than men.
Andrew Hildner designed the set. Kyle Irwin’s sound design is realistic, featuring seagulls, nearly constant ocean waves, and the periodic overhead roar of an ominous jet plane. Nina Simone sings jazz before the curtain and during the intermission.
Claire Chrzan designed the sunny lighting. Kate Grube created the costumes. The lizard “suits” are especially remarkable. Kristen Hill designed the perfect make-up.
Robert W. Behr is the stage manager.
When I was in junior high in the Cold War late-1950s, my friends and I were addicted to a seemingly never-ending genre of schlocky sci-fi films featuring violent shrews, alligators, giant ants, tarantulas and such that ran amuck due to atomic radiation. Here, however, the background of these huge talking lizards is never clarified. Sarah and Leslie seem to simply be in the vanguard of evolution.
Some might consider Seascape a minor work by Albee. The narrative is pretty thin. I wonder if it was conceived as a one-act but then “filled out.”
But this essentially optimistic play — a fun adult fairy tale — is more reassuring than depressing. Audiences often have many different “takes” on any of Albee’s works but, to me, this one seems to say hope and comfort are to be had in long-term relationships. It’s a very enjoyable production of a seldom-seen modern classic.