Charlie (James Carpenter) and Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) panic at the appearance of Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Leslie (Seann Gallagher) (Kevin Berne)
Sometimes, most times, a day at the beach is just that. Sand beneath one’s feet, the crashing surf, a picnic lunch. Uneventful, idle, predictable.
But even in peak relaxation, Nancy and Charlie’s approach to idleness is very different. She’s been painting; he watching the water. She talks with the volubility of a woman accustomed to leading the conversation; he speaks with the precise sentences of a man who is not. She wants to retire properly, pack up the house, see the world; he wants to do “nothing.” Their day at the beach feels like one of thousands of perfectly forgettable days.
That is, until the giant lizards arrive.
In the world of Edward Albee’s Seascape, directed by A.C.T.’s new artistic director Pam MacKinnon, an unprepossessing slice of shoreline becomes the staging ground for a curious meeting of the minds. Not so much the minds of Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter)—they’ve mostly given up on listening to each other—but with those of their reptilian visitors, Sarah (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Leslie (Seann Gallagher).
No mere metaphors, Sarah and Leslie sport iridescent green scales, decorative frills, and ninja-turtle belly-ridges: half Shape of Water, half iguana-chic (costumes and scenic design by David Zinn). And while their appearance at first is startling, as soon as Nancy and Charlie discover that their lizard companions speak English, the four settle into an exchange of ideas, and species-specific differences in courtship rituals, childbearing, and the elusive nature of emotions.
Like many of Albee’s works—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Zoo Story, and A Delicate Balance among them—most of the action takes place within the language, even while much of the conversation is expressed without. As Nancy chatters about seeing the world, she barely looks at Charlie, her eyes fixed on the horizon and her potential future. When he shares, not for the first time, his habit in childhood to force the air from his lungs so he could sit in peaceful solitude at the bottom of the cove, his face is similarly turned, but looking to the past. Even a confession that Nancy once contemplated leaving Charlie doesn’t bridge the unacknowledged distance between them, as evidenced by the rolling swaths of sand dune that separate them physically.
But with the appearance of their very unexpected visitors they must unite, Nancy taking the lead, as they assume “submissive” poses and smile in what they consider a friendly manner. After Sarah and Leslie discuss whether Nancy and Charlie’s bared teeth constitute a threat, they make their approach, eager to unravel the mysteries of the world outside the water from which they have just emerged. Almost immediately, their own relationship dynamic is revealed, one not dissimilar to their human counterparts. And after a few prods and sniffs, the four realize they share a common language, and the tension dissipates for a bit.
Physically as well as linguistically there is enough similarity between the lizards and the humans that they can feel superficially at ease. The lizards stand on their two hind legs, learn to shake “hands” with their front ones, and only revert to all fours when scrambling over the dunes or hiding from the occasional planes flying loudly overhead. It’s their surface similarities, though, that underscore the real distance between them.
In evolutionary terms, Nancy and Charlie occupy what may be considered the top tier, though up until now they’ve not had the foresight to appreciate it. Sarah and Leslie, meanwhile, are just now considering a move to dry land. Their grasp of the English language is solid but lacking in dimension, and when confronted with the concept of emotions their confusion is palpable. The more that Charlie and Leslie try to parse out for the lizards what they are, exactly, the more it becomes evident that words alone are a poor medium for communication, no matter your species.
Known as a formidable interpreter of Albee’s contemporary work, MacKinnon’s decision to direct this older, less frequently staged piece feels exactly like a bit of a beach holiday in January. Not as weighted as Virginia Woolf, not as outright absurd as The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, Seascape gives us some existential puzzles to work on at our leisure—much like the book of crosswords surely tucked into Nancy and Charlie’s picnic basket—without crushing us beneath their implications.
At its heart, the message is so simple a lizard could grasp it: within all creatures lies the imperative to evolve. Some of them, both human and not, are simply more open to it than others.
'Seascape' runs through Feb. 17 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. Details here.
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