The audience pulled their lawn chairs right up to the edge of the “stage,” a virtual “beach” in the middle of Ehlert Park, 4338 Congress Park Ave. in Brookfield. Coastal Disturbances, a romantic comedy currently being produced by Oak Park’s Open Door Theater and Habakkuk Theatre, a troupe with a strong Brookfield connection, is being presented outdoors on the sand-filled volleyball court as a joint venture.
There was great excitement before the show began since most audience members had not seen a live theatrical performance in over a year and a half. It began at 4 in the afternoon, rather like the Globe Theater 500 years ago, with no theatrical lighting or sound amplification. The actors keep us informed as to what time of day it is or what is going on in terms of weather. This works well.
The stage needs sand to represent a secluded private beach in New England. I cannot imagine how an indoor theater might transport several tons of sand to their performance space to depict this setting. But this location is perfect and fun.
The production is tightly directed by Hilly Doyle. It’s a light romantic comedy that is often rather funny. Yet I found playwright Tina Howe’s writing somewhat inadequate.
Coastal Disturbances premiered Off-Broadway in the mid-1980s and then transferred to Broadway. It was the show that put a 20-something Annette Bening on the map.
The actors are uniformly strong in this ensemble play. Howe’s plays are noted for their quirky roles and this company manages to keep the characters fascinating, even if they’re not fully developed in the dialogue.
The slender plot, essentially a series of interwoven vignettes, includes several generations of vacationers, but the heart of the story is the summer love affair between a nervous young photographer named Holly who has come to the beach to visit her aunt and a good-looking, friendly and kind lifeguard.
Holly wants to get away from her troubled personal and career life. Back in New York, she is involved with a pretentious art dealer, who is older. Melody Jeffries is believable as whiny, self-absorbed, but still likable. At times she seems to be coming apart.
Andrew Cawley is also credible as Leo, the sincere, nice-guy lifeguard, hired late in the season in the wake of a child’s drowning. He’s also on the rebound, getting over a bad break-up.
Holly seems swept away by Leo and ultimately confesses her love for him. In one scene, while she is droning on and on about dolphins, Leo buries her in the sand.
There’s a long-married, 70-ish couple who are not part of the main storyline. She’s a cynical amateur painter who doubts her artistic ability while he is a retired eye surgeon who now spends his time collecting seashells on the beach. They often squabble but they have survived many decades of marriage, are still comfortable together, and celebrate their enduring love. Diane Wawrzyniak and Bill Chamberlain are fun in these roles.
The two children in the cast are exceptionally good. Thora Jenkins and Spencer Schmidt, playing best buddies, are busy and bratty. If you’ve been cooped up all day with noisy, defiant children, perhaps this might not be the play for you. These two talented young performers are quite realistic.
Two women are also vacationing near the beach. Tina Shelley, the artistic director of Habakkuk Theater and a Brookfield resident, is strong and a bit scary as Ariel, the bitter survivor of a messy divorce. She is not a good mother either. Unable to get over her own anger, she loses control with her young son and flies into rage.
Faith, Ariel’s former college roommate, is played by Jen Connor. She has an adopted daughter but is now finally and quite obviously pregnant. These two women are judgmental of Holly but perhaps really just jealous.
In an unexpected second-act visit, Holly’s pretentious, middle-aged, big-city lover, seeks to lure her back to New York City. He’s been stringing her along with the promise of a gallery exhibition. This development should pump some energy into the storyline and rescue Act 2, but it doesn’t.
Playwright Howe has had a long career. It’s often pointed out that her characters are quirky and convincingly real. Several of her more popular plays are Painting Churches and The Art of Dining. But I find her writing rather flat. This slender little romance never really fully works.
The characters talk a lot but reveal precious little of their inner selves. We are often left to wonder what made them who they are and why they act in such a manner. Surprisingly, there is not much chemistry in the dialogue between the lovers.
Structurally, the vignettes are not tied together. Though the acting and direction are superb and the outdoor beach-like setting is perfect, there seems to be little message and not much to take away.
There is one intermission in this BYOC (Bring your own chair) production.
For whatever reason, my GPS would not take the park’s address. I ended up just hunting in the vicinity. Look for two blue tents on the volleyball court. It’s actually easy to see.
Coastal Disturbances is a production that sports talent and energy. Despite the shortcomings of the dialogue, it was good seeing a live show outside with a crowd of other people.
See Tony Award nominated “Coastal Disturbances” Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 26 at 4 p.m. at Ehlert Park, Elm and Congress Park avenues in Brookfield. $18. Tickets/more: brownpapertickets.com/event/5182232.
Doug Deuchler is a longtime educator and historian who, when he isn’t reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent, film class instructor and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.