Reading the playbill for the Shaw Festival's production of Edward Bond's "The Sea", three names immediately leapt off the page: Fiona Reid, cast as Louise Rafi; set designer Camellia Koo, who recently won a Dora Award for Outstanding Scenic Design in "The Wanderers"; and John Gzowski, the composer and sound designer who has quite the gift for his line of work. It felt a bit like waiting for Christmas to arrive, as just knowing that these heavyweights would be in "The Sea" made the play better before it even began.
The play did not disappoint, taking theatre in new directions as director Eda Holmes used her dance background to infuse "The Sea" with a new flavour. What was really enjoyable to see was how she represented the actual sea — the back curtains billowed out by actors dancing lithely and seductively, but without sexual overtones. At once, the audience could get a sense for the power, majesty and unpredictable nature of the open water, despite taking place in the cozy Court House Theatre. The scene changes — switching from a drape shop to the sea to Rafi's living room — were a pleasure to watch in and of themselves, as the fluidity was yet another aspect that fleshed out "The Sea".
Those same three watery adjectives can be applied to the play, too, given its plots, characters and imagery. Drape shopkeeper Hatch (Patrick Galligan)'s descent from bemusement at Rafi's demands to howling insane mess was like an ocean moving from the calm and into a thrashing storm, while Rafi's journey from bossy and snobby dame to a somewhat beaten-down shell showed the opposite personality of the sea. And in between were all the rest of the parts that make up the water, the bits and bobs that float along thinking they're of importance to the end game but really not grasping their insignificance at all.
The lone exception to the last point is Evens (Peter Millard, whose grizzled visage and quick wit are right on cue), a reclusive drunk who may or may not have had a direct role in the drowning of a young man whose fiancée, Rose Jones (Julia Course, acting very much the shell-shocked widow), and friend and boat mate, Willy Carson (a mostly consistent Wade Bogert-O'Brien), desperately search for answers. What's revealed to them by the old man by the sea is both prophetic and a letdown; in life, the answers to the big questions aren't always as big or impressive as we may want them to be. Instead, it's usually the simpler explanations that are true, and we as humans tend to let our egos aggrandize what's most important to us.
That's not to say that nothing that involves us isn't important, as it is: the events we experience shape our collective narratives, and it's those very bits and bobs — the seemingly insignificant details — that come together to form the bigger picture. In "The Sea", this is especially true. Holmes does a near-excellent job at guiding her actors to present a play with an almost continuous undercurrent of ominousness, with Galligan really contributing excellently. His Hatch, wild-haired and ranting about hostile aliens, is uncomfortable to watch because he hits so close to the truth. None of us fancy ourselves a Hatch, but how many of us have never thought poorly toward people who don't belong in our comfort zones?
Equally matching him is Reid, an actress quite comfortably in her prime and with the drive to keep reaching higher. It's nothing but a pleasure of the most elemental sort to watch someone of her stature on stage, as she grabs her character by the corset and immerses herself completely. There's growth, character exposition, charisma and a power that oozes from her, whether she's chiding the others on their inability to act as they prepare to put on "Orpheus" or laying herself bare at the end.
The rest of the cast don't quite match Reid and Galligan, but they come pretty darn close. Neil Barclay as the Vicar slides into his role easily, especially when officiating over the impromptu hymnal competition at the drowned man's funeral. As Jessica Tilehouse, Patty Jamieson delivers several juicy zingers, such as remarking, "After this I shall regard Gomorrah as a spa resort". While he could have been a little rougher around the edges, Bogert-O'Brien manages to set himself a decent level of standard, and not slip underneath it during the play. Matching him is Course, who shows a remarkable amount of poise mixed with grief for her lost betrothed.
Is it the Shaw Festival's best play this season? No, but it certainly is emblematic of the high quality they've set for themselves, and definitely a gripping piece of theatre to watch. With Gzowski's sound design creating a chilling atmosphere when needed and the powerhouse acting of Galligan and Reid, "The Sea" is also one that'll leave its watermark on you for some time to come.
"The Sea" plays at the Court House Theatre through October 12. For more information and tickets, visit the Shaw Festival's website.