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Love on the sand: (l-r) Davidson and Parisse in Coastal Disturbances.

Last Days of Summer


By Ralph Hammann

Coastal Disturbances

By Tina Howe, directed by Mark Nelson

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 29

Set during the last two weeks of August on a private beach under ever-changing Massachusetts skies, Tina Howe’s remarkable, impressionistic play is a quiet contemplation on the childlike purity that love bestows. At the same time it suggests that for love to be possible there must first be a return to such innocence and vulnerability. On the face of it, none of this seems terribly profound, but as Howe crafts it, it is as meaningful and intensely felt as the ocean and the shore.

As does a visit to the beach, Howe’s play reinvigorates so subtly that we are barely aware of the rays that are illuminating her characters and penetrating us. Indeed, time passes so unobtrusively under the radiance of her words and humor that one risks getting burnt as one is lulled into her spell. And if one does burn, it is merely a reminder that one is alive and no less than a red badge of vulnerability and humanity.

Perhaps this makes little sense. For some it may simply suffice that Howe’s play is about love and its disturbances as experienced by four generations of people as they play in the sand, expose their souls and toast their triumphs. It is very wise work, which ruefully observes that one must be young at heart to love, but that the distracted young often misplace love like a shell in the sand.

Sensitively directed by Mark Nelson, the Berkshire Theatre Festival production features a strong cast and a collaboration of setting (Bill Clarke) and lighting (Dan Kotlowitz) that evokes the differing atmospheres of the beach. All that one could desire would be a wider expanse than is permitted on the BTF stage, but this minimalist design (sand, lifeguard chair, beach grass, clouds) is an evocative companion to Howe’s poetry.

Her characters reveal truths about themselves as the sand and ocean sounds lure them into a sense of play or peace where they can forget their day-to-day trials and rediscover what is fundamental. It may be a transitory peace as felt by Ariel (a pitch- perfect Jennifer Van Dyck), who is recovering from a difficult divorce and ugly marriage. Or it may approach the eternal as suggested by the elderly Hammie and M.J. (a convincing Jack Davidson and Patricia Conolly) who have made their peace with imperfection. Even the slick interloper, Andre (succinctly drawn by Francois Giroday), is inveigled into sharing a touching childhood story about his father, a poor immigrant whose artistic nature could not be repressed. After telling it, Andre says to Holly, a photographer and the play’s chief protagonist, that like his father she is an artist, someone with the power to transform the world.

The trouble with Holly, though, is that an unsatisfactory relationship with Andre has left her on the verge of a nervous breakdown that is held in check by the ocean and Leo Hart, a handsome and sexually alluring lifeguard who seems, to some, a little too old for the job. And herein lies the heart of the play, as this Lionheart with a cross over his chest takes on the rescue of Holly.

Jeremy Davidson plays Leo in a full range of colors that paint him as summer hunk, big brother, helpful son figure, seductive sun god and earnest lover. He is excellent and offers tender, solid support in the manner of, say George Peppard in the film version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But it is Holly Dancer who fascinates.

This is true partly because Dancer is a close cousin to Capote’s iconic Holly Golightly and partly because Annie Parisse plays Holly with the sort of irrepressible charm and endearing kookiness that Audrey Hepburn brought to Golightly. It doesn’t hurt that Parisse also has the beauty and alert sensitivities of Hepburn. But Parisse is an original who makes us want to watch her every action and reaction (indeed one who fails to watch the latter will miss the full impact of this production). And she performs with the compelling sensory alertness of a wild animal that is forever conscious of its environment and the dangers that may threaten her life. Or heart.

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