by Michael Bracken
Conversations come in bits and pieces in On the Shore of the Wide World at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, as do scenes and information. Yet there is nothing staccato or halting about Simon Stephens’s telling dialogue.
It flows with the rhythm of casual human speech, with a British accent, as uttered by members of the Holmes family of Stockport, a town in Greater Manchester. Three generations of Holmeses struggle to deal with each other’s and their own imperfections in scenes that are short and many.
Grandfather and grandson, mother and son, husband and wife, all try to communicate with each other. Loving and open, they listen as best they can but their hearing is often impaired by self-interest, no matter how well-intentioned they are.
Fourteen-year-old Christopher (Wesley Zurick), and eighteen-year-old Alex (Ben Rosenfield) are brothers. Alex has a new girlfriend, Sarah (Tedra Millan), with whom Christopher falls “completely in love” and so informs everyone in the family except Alex. The boys’ parents are Peter (C.J. Wilson), who restores old buildings, and Alice (Mary McCann), who goes back to work (of an unspecified office variety) as the drama progresses. They allow Sarah and Alex to spend the night in Alex’s room without comment.
Peter’s parents, Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown), live nearby. Charlie likes to drink on the sly and does so every chance he gets. At one point, he tries to get Ellen’s keys to stop her from going out. Christopher sees and thinks he’s abusing her, and the news gets spread among his immediate family.
Two major events occur during the play that affect all the family members. The first is a fatal automobile accident. The second is Sarah and Alex’s moving to London.
We don’t actually see the accident. We learn about it when Peter describes it to his client, Susan (Amelia Workman) months after it happens. Stephens uses this technique, feeding us pieces of the plot second-hand and after the fact, just enough to pique our interest without making us feel cheated of the live action.
We do see the move to London, at least as far as the Manchester train station, but even here our knowledge is gained somewhat obliquely. Sarah and Alex refer to it in advance, when we don’t know what they’re talking about. Then their plans become clear to us but not to Alex’s parents. Then Alex tells his mother and she drops and smashes a teacup in response.
Scott Pask’s rambling set is a gem. It’s dominated by wood, especially in the sweeping staircase that extends across the back of the stage but also in the table and chairs in Peter and Alice’s kitchen/dining room. It accommodates a variety of venues, indoors and out, as scenes are played and spaces created all over the stage, including on the platform at the top of the stairs, with help from Christopher Akerlind’s spot-on lighting.
Director Neil Pepe ensures that every element is aligned with and complements every other. Pacing, placement, and design couldn’t be better. And the performances he elicits from his cast are marvelous.
Every actor, including Odiseas Georgiadis, as a friend of Alex, and Leroy McClain, as a man with whom Alice almost has an affair, is impeccable. They fill in every inch of the characters Stephens has created for them and generously share themselves with each other. It’s ensemble work at its best.
It is, of course, Stephens’s wonderful script that makes it all possible. His writing is clear and clean and unselfconscious. His meticulously constructed plot unfolds with a naturalness that’s breathtaking. On the Shore of the Wide World is always true to itself. It exudes integrity as it vibrantly celebrates the ordinary and somehow demystifies the extraordinary.
Through Sunday, October 8 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). https://atlantictheater.org/playevents/on-the-shore-of-the-wide-world/ . 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission.