"The sea is my religion," the Irishman says, standing alone on a dimly lit stage, "and the weather above the sea."
Welcome to two of the most brilliant hours of Harvard theater this semester. Sea Marks, written by Gardner McKay and directed by Daniel O'Keefe, is first-rate, powerful minimalist theater.
The hardwood stage, bare except for a bed and chair, is an ideal place for this intense love story to unfold. The emphasis of the work is on characterization--the focus falls on the two actors, who shine unencumbered by theatrical accoutrements.
Written by Gardner McKay
Directed by Daniel O'Keefe
At the Dunster House JCR
January 12 and 13
The rugged-looking Dan Zelman is well-cast as the sensitive Irishman, Colm Primrose, and Heather Gunn is equally well-cast as the polished English city girl, Timothea Stiles.
Colm is a salty, naive fisherman who meets and falls in love with Timothea when she comes to her cousin's wedding in the small seaside town where he lives.
Later, he writes to her, and although she doesn't remember meeting him, she is charmed by the honest prose of his letters. After a year and a half of writing, they arrange a meeting, fall in love, and move to Liverpool.
Timothea, who works for a publishing company, decides to make Colm Liverpool's new poet when she secretly publishes his writings to her in a book called Sea Sonnets. She presents the book to him one night before dinner, and Colm is wondrous. "What is a sonnet anyway?" he asks, and when Timothea explains that these sonnets are his poems, he replies that they are really nothing more than marks--sea marks.
Sea Marks, a little-known work performed for the first time in the '70s, is an ambitious script, touching upon love, sex, death, and betrayal. The dialogue is vivid, the images strong. The script demands much of the cast as it moves quickly between extremes.
And the small cast responds superbly. Zelman's earnest, whole-heartedness never falters. He, in stiff-legged seaman awkwardness, is always believable, always endearing. He straightforwardly delivers lines like, "We could not be closer to the sea without drowning in it," unaware of their humor. His coastal Irish accent is well done, and his movements and expressions never betray that he is anyone other than a plain fisherman who loves the sea as much as he loves Timothea.
Gunn's performance is equally exceptional. She creates a rich character, richer, perhaps, than even the script intended. Her eyes really do sparkle; she really does blush; and we believe her eagerness when she opens Colm's letters. We trust the warmth in her voice when she plainly states, "I do love you, my darling." Occasionally, Gunn seems more a mainstage actress, when her movements are somewhat big for the small Dunster House JCR, but her performance is nonetheless wholly believable and delightful to watch.
Much of acting is reacting, and though Zelman and Gunn are independently talented actors, their dynamics are what make the show better than just good. We sense the love between them, the electric sexual tension of their first real meeting, and the awkwardness of their first sexual encounter are all genuine.
Completely real also seem the anger in Timothea's voice when Colm is late for his first poetry reading and the grief in Colm's cries when his father dies. Neither actor overshadows the other; the orchestrated give and take between them makes the show intensely moving, and saves it from artificial sentimentality.
The strength of their performance together transforms the JCR into a small Liverpool flat and the cars on Memorial Drive into waves pounding the Irish coast. They let the audience, for a couple of hours, follow the movement of the lives of Colm and Timothea, and in any performance, this accomplished is a rare thing indeed.