Grief and humor are exceptionally personal. These two gracefully acted monologues, which should be required viewing by theater students, explore the first without eschewing the second. Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal respectively hold the stage with utter naturalness addressing the audience as if intimates. The actors appear casual, remember and relive with halting realism, and are seemingly ambushed by emotion. Both are riveting. And no, it’s not depressing.
The stage is bare but for a brick wall-second story, piano, and table. Sturridge and Gyllenhaal themselves turn house lights on and off.
Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall
“You don’t have to be quiet. I’m just waiting for everyone to arrive,” Alex (Tom Sturridge) tells us pleasantly, pouring himself a beer. He’s sitting on the wall looking at a pile of photographs. “…She had us, both of us, absolutely round her finger,” he begins referring to his future wife and father-in law. Descriptions of both are detailed and captivating. We settle in to a family scrapbook. When daughter Lucy “came along,” everything seemed perfect.
Tragedy often waylays. Alex’s strikes us in a state of genial complacency. The story’s arc is deft and utterly sympathetic, at the end posing a question of faith.
Nick Payne’s A Life
“When she tells me she might be pregnant, I’m in the middle of roasting a chicken…Abe (Jake Gyllenhaal) recalls looking anxious. The second tale also involves a father, in this case, his. Abe ricochets back and forth between angst before and during the birth of his first child (best laid plans) and his father’s unexpected death. Abruptness may give you whiplash. Imagine what simultaneously juggling these two major events did to our protagonist.
These more common life experiences can’t really be deemed tragedy. We’re nonetheless made to feel Abe’s breathless coping and an aftermath that will be familiar to many. Structure is forceful. A coda dangles unnecessary.
Director Carrie Cracknell is a master of timing. Characters appear sincere, open, and very much in the moment. Nor do we find them stiff alone on stage. Performance is full of subtlety.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Tom Sturridge
Sea Wall/A Life by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne – respectively
Directed by Carrie Cracknell
Through March 31, 2019
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street