Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. Skokie
When: through April 23
By ANNE SPISELMAN
A natural disaster can bring out the best or worst in people. In the case of “By the Water,” which is enjoying a very well-acted Midwest premiere at Northlight Theatre, it does both.
Set in the devastated home of Marty and Mary Murphy on the eastern coast of Staten Island in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Sharyn Rothstein’s play is an old-fashioned naturalistic dysfunctional-family drama that conjures up Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” or “All My Sons.” Generational conflicts are exposed, secrets revealed, and betrayals rehashed as the characters grapple with issues such as the fear of change and knowing when it’s time to dig in and when to move on.
Marty (Francis Guinan), a rumpled 62-year-old working-class sort who has also lost his grocery stores, and Mary (Penny Slusher), his loving and supportive wife of thirtysome years, return to the house his father left him determined to rebuild, even though this is the second hurricane they’ve weathered. They confront the damage—missing walls, broken furniture, debris everywhere, probable mold, all impeccably rendered by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec—with a can-do spirit and sense of humor. And Marty, in particular, is convinced that the other members of their tight-knit community will feel as they do.
The first challenge to their plan comes from their older son, Sal (Jordan Brown), who turns up to help with the clean-up. He’s made it into the middle class, has a good job, and lives in Manhattan with a wife who is about to start her own public relations business. Worried about his parents, he wants them to move to a safer neighborhood and even tries to convince Marty that Mary would prefer to leave but is going along with her husband out of loyalty.
Their other adult son, Brian (Joel Reitsma), also arrives offering assistance. Recently released from prison for robbery and trying to recover from drug addiction, he works as a cook at Olive Garden. In temperament he’s more like his father and the opposite of Sal, and he sees himself as a life-long screw-up. There’s also bad blood between the brothers and animosity on Marty’s part because of Sal’s betrayal of Brian, though he believes he did what he did for Brian’s own good. On top of all this, Brian runs into Emily (Amanda Drinkall), his long-ago girlfriend who’s just gotten out of a bad marriage, and there are tentative stabs at rekindling their relationship.
Emily is the daughter of Marty and Mary’s neighbors and best friends, Philip (Patrick Clear) and Andrea (Janet Ulrich Brooks) Carter. They have mixed feelings about Brian and Emily getting back together, but more importantly, they come over and tell Marty and Mary that, contrary to Marty’s belief that everyone in the community will stay, even they plan to move—to New Jersey.
In fact, the government has offered a buyout plan for the hurricane victims, and this causes a rift between Marty and the Carters. Most of the homeowners have to agree to the buyout for it to go into effect, and Marty—asserting that it’s a government plot to get land for wealthy developers—starts a campaign against it. The Carters, fearful he may ruin everyone’s chances of getting the money, urge him to desist.
While Marty obviously loves the life he’s built in the community, and the fact that everybody knows him, his real reasons for not wanting to leave are more complicated. Not only is he terrified of change, he’s gotten himself into a mess financially that goes further even than his previous problems with the IRS, which are dredged up in his arguments with his sons.
The heart of the matter, however, is that Marty has been keeping secrets from Mary all these years, and when she finds out, she finally has the strength and gumption to stand up to him. Slusher’s masterfully understated performance blends suppressed anger, pained betrayal, and stoic suffering, so that there’s some question of whether she’ll ever forgive him even though it’s clear she still loves him. Her new-found assertiveness is the perfect antidote to the bluster and bullying of Guinan’s Marty.
Under Cody Estle’s sensitive direction, the rest of the ensemble is equally fine. I was especially impressed by Reitsma’s deeply flawed but basically good Brian and the layered contrast between him and Brown’s somewhat self-righteous Sal, who nonetheless remains sympathetic, partly because his attention to his parents is causing trouble with his marriage. As usual, Brooks nails it: Her Andrea unleashes all the fury and frustration of someone in a terrible situation who is helpless to do much about it.
“By the Water” is a carefully wrought, compassionate look at the effects of a sudden, violent natural disaster on a family and community, but I found myself respecting it intellectually more than responding to it viscerally. I’m not sure why, so I’ll probably be pondering that for a while. I also think the characters would have done more in the course of 100 minutes (especially in the early scenes) to clean up the loose debris on stage, but that’s my one quibble with the direction.