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Before going on stage for each performance of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s World Premiere of Lucy Boyle’s "The Blue Deep," lead actress Blythe Danner says "Let the play wash over me." That’s a good way to see it; let it wash over you.
Danner makes her entrance in white summer shirt and long blue skirt, in apparent harmony with the serene blue walls and surrounding flowers of her cottage in the Hamptons. This idyllic atmosphere proves ironic as Grace’s multi-tasking busyness quickly provides the first of many laughter-provoking twists.
To fight off the aging of her 65-year-old body, Grace changes into a black body suit with Darth Vader hardware hanging about the hips. With this harness, she does Pilates in the pool (front center stage). Her aqua aerobics are elevated (by theatre magic) and we see her frantic fluttering to hold off her aging and her grief over the recent death of her husband.
In contrast with Grace’s perpetual motion, daughter Lila (Heather Lind), though only in her twenties, is stuck -- in an unhappy romantic relationship and in a couple of unfulfilling minor jobs in Los Angeles, writing for a shopping blog and baby-sitting -- unable to realize her dreams of becoming a writer. She impulsively returns to the Miller family summer home on Sag Harbor, with her belongings, including a teddy bear, packed in plastic bags, and trailing strands of her troubled relationship.
When Lila turns up unannounced, having just flown across the country, mother and daughter "greet" each other combatively, from across the cottage garden, not touching beyond their barbed words. In contrast, Grace and Lila each physically and warmly embrace the next visitors, a middle aged couple Charlie (Jack Gilpin) and wife Roberta (Becky Ann Baker).
During mother and daughter’s tumultuous navigation of the loss of Grace’s husband/Lila’s father, Grace walls herself off with frenetic activity, unable to listen to memories of her husband from her daughter Lila or from his friend, Charlie. Mother and daughter are cast together living in the little cottage, but both adrift because they each primarily related to him, rather than to each other, and in their very different styles.
When mother and daughter finally share their memories with each other, we learn that Grace, characteristically aggressive, fought her husband’s dying, forcing him to walk the hospital halls for exercise despite his exhaustion, while Lila huddled in a corner of the hospital room, crying helplessly.
Enter the young gardener (and masters student of environmental science), Jamie (Finn Wittrock) to clear up the debris of a mighty tree felled by a storm. Jamie pursues his youthful attraction to Lila, and the naturalness of their growing intimacy over the succeeding days and nights is in contrast to the distance and barbed hostility between Lila and Grace.
While they sit on the ground measuring the size of the stump, Jamie tells Lila, "When one thing changes, everything changes." He warns her about the cost of trying to dig out the entire tree; to dig out all the roots means tearing up the lawn and even the pool, "messing up" everything. A gardener, he knows the connections of plants and the earth and rebukes Lila for contaminating her lungs with cigarette smoke "just like ozone contaminates the atmosphere."
When Lila comments that the flowers are dying -- Jamie replies that the weather has been extremely dry. As throughout the play, the symbolism is evocative but avoids being heavy-handed.
Directed by Bob Balaban, the Nikos Stage has an intimacy which befits the play’s explorations of relationships, although a front row seat might put the play too much in your face. The changes of light of the three background screens, which transform from blue sky with clouds to sunset to night-studded stars, evoke the passage of time but are also emotionally evocative. The triangular arrangement of the three screens also evokes the triangle of father/husband with mother and daughter.
Non-verbal sounds of water in the pool and of waves in the ocean grace "The Blue Deep" as does birdsong. At the beginning of the play, Grace communicates with her just-arrived daughter by wondering about the skylark, which is heard but never seen. At the end of the play, she ecstatically exclaims, "I’ll never know where you are."
The ocean of air in which the skylark flies and sings is above; below is the sea of dreams that Lila descends into each night, encountering her father but having to surface and leave him since she is "unable to breathe water." Despite the pain of loss, grief and family relationships, the play is very funny, a blend of humor and heartache, with vivid characters and always forward-driving action.
Contact Lorna Cheriton through email@example.com.
"The Deep Blue" runs through July 8 on the Nikos Stage at Williams College. For tickets or information call 413-597-3400, visit wtfestival.org, or visit the box office.