NOT WAVING

Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2008

Before I saw Not Waving, I had already heard two opinions. One person liked the acting and not the script, and the other person loved the script and the acting and had a wonderful time. Having seen it, I agree with the latter, not the former. Ellen Melaver has written a lovely little play Ė quiet and gentle Ė in which the action is subtle rather than overt. If are looking for an action-packed evening, as I suspect my first commentator was, then this is not the play for you.

I have been writing a lot this summer about plays in which nothing happens Ė Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, Waiting for Godot Ė versus plays, like Othello, with a very strong plot line, or farces, like The Ladies Man and A Flea in Her Ear, in which so much happens that the action becomes meaningless. Not Waving bears a closer resemblance to Chekhov than Beckett because the character-driven action occurs imperceptibly slowly and by the end something has happened. But, unlike any of the other plays Iíve just mentioned, Melaver works her magic in a mere eighty minutes, rather than 2-3 hours.

Melaver has said that Not Waving was inspired by a real-life drowning incident. But no one drowns in the play Ė instead the playwright focuses on three pairs of people sitting on the same beach a year later. They are all aware of what happened, and it colors their lives in different oblique ways.

Each pair consists of a man and a woman. Two are couples. Lizzie (Maria Dizzia) and Matthew (Nate Corddry) are a 30-something married couple, while Bo (Will Rogers) and Cara (Sarah Steggie) are teens in a burgeoning relationship. The third pair, Patsy (Harriet Harris) and Peter (Dashiell Eaves), are a mother and her adult son. In each pair the man is struggling to move past an issue that has been preventing his life and relationships from moving forwards, and the woman provides the support, love and insight necessary for him to take the next step.

The pairs never interact with each other, even when a misunderstanding causes them to think that history is about to repeat itself. In the opening moments Melaver and director Carolyn Cantor stage an hilarious dance in the sand as each pair jockeys for their favorite spot on the beach.

What Melaver has done extremely well in her script is to create believable characters who we quickly come to understand and care about. While each pair struggles with separate issues, they are composed of people who genuinely care for and listen to each other. Under these circumstances the menís concerns are valid and realistic and the womenís ability to lend support is born of the closeness of the relationships established.

I was particularly impressed with Melaverís writing of the teen couple Ė Bo and Cara. These are not Beach Blanket Bingo teens, but genuine young adults, people coming into their own, together and separately. Bo and Cara are probably not each otherís soulmates, but, as gently played by Rogers and Steggie, you feel that they will remain friends and have fond memories of each other in the years to come.

Cantor has all her cast play their roles quietly and naturally. Each pair is believable in their relationship to each other, and each relationship is loving and respectful. Disagreements are confronted and those clashes lead to greater understanding.

At the end, as Patsy waves to Peter while he swims, everyone has taken a leap of faith and the immediate impediments of the day have been overcome, but no one is assured of a happy ending. The next day everything could change and pain and uncertainty will reclaim their lives, but for that June day at the beach progress has been made and the three pairs feel safe in each otherís company.

The casting is excellent because not only is each actor well suited to his or her role, but they look like real people on a beach, not like a bunch of actors. A vast majority of humanity does not look drop dead gorgeous in a bathing suit, and while these are all attractive people, they have an average-ness about them that is appealing and refreshing. These are NOT the terrifyingly thin Hollywood actresses who seemed to be proliferating at the WTF last summer. Harris, Dizzia, and Steggie are normal healthy women of different ages and they are dressed appropriately and naturally.

The last time I arrived at the Nikos Stage to find it covered in sand with Nate Corddry making an entrance it was last seasonís disastrous Villa America and I have to say I had a flashback to that inauspicious occasion. But that soon dissipated as Melaverís fine script unwound itself. Set designer David Korins is Cantorís husband, and he has designed an evocative set, superbly lit by Devid Weiner. Early on Patsy urges Peter to make a human sundial in the sand, as they used to do when he was a child, and this is a gentle hint to you, dear viewer, to keep an eye on the shadows as the subtly turn eighty minutes into six hours on an early summerís day.

Maybe the constant roar of the waves, the cry of the gulls, the chatter and squeals of humanity at play Ė all the normal sounds of the beach Ė would have become irritating if played, even softly, throughout the play, but frankly I found it annoying that we only head the ocean when one of the characters was preparing to go swimming. Thatís not how it works in real life, but that is how Bart Fasbender handled the sound design here.

Not Waving is the final show on the Nikos Stage this season, and, although it is set in June at summerís beginning, it felt like a proper way to say good-bye to the summer season as well. We all have special hot weather memories, many of which involve fresh or salt water, and Cantor and Melaverís final image of Patsy standing on the beach waving is no doubt a close match to many a remembered mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, or friend on the shore of the ocean or a lake as you swam, or even standing on a city stoop waving while you and the neighborhood gang ran through the gushing water of the fire hydrant. It feels like summer.

Nicholas Martin assembled a lovely collection of new plays for the Nikos Stage this year. Beyond Therapy was silly June romp for actors and audience alike. The Atheist was challenging, controversial, and difficult, but well written, acted, and directed. Broke-ology was a solid family dramedy, alternately heart-warming and heart-wrenching. The Understudy was a little love letter to the theatre crafted with dazzling brilliance. And now Not Waving sends us off into the fall with more happy memories of sun and water and a few precious warm days to spend with people we love.

I donít know about you, but Iím happy.

Not Waving runs through August 17 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs eighty minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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