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Stellar Acting and Dark Revelations Lurk at 'The Water's Edge'

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Nicole Farmer and Patrick Rieger in "The Water's Edge." (Photo: Chris Goss)
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Plays about dysfunctional families or relationships aren’t rare—in fact, they likely compose 95 percent of all drama. The reason for that is simple enough: dramatic theater, unlike a lot of film, is human-sized, and provides an excellent mirror to the foibles and joys of people we recognize. It’s about us, a topic we find endlessly fascinating, and for that reason theater will never die. Theresa Rebeck’s The Water’s Edge, in a terrific West Coast premiere by the Road Theatre Company, may take things further in its look at family dynamics than most of us would ever go, but the complicated emotions underlying the characters will be familiar to us all.

Successful middle-aged businessman Richard (Albie Selznick) has brought his much younger girlfriend Lucy (Lauren Birriel) to the home where he grew up, a secluded place in the Massachusetts woods. The old place has tenants, however—the family he left behind almost two decades ago. His adult children, Erica (Paris Perrault) and Nate (Patrick Rieger), had no idea he was coming and are suitably shocked at his sudden appearance. Richard tries to reconnect with his children with some success, and then their mother Helen (Nicole Farmer) shows up. Richard wants to be part of the family again, but the fallout from an old tragedy and a bitter Helen will make that goal trickier than he imagines.

Selznick brings affable charm and a sense of intellectual curiosity to Richard, and manages to make the fact that Richard had his reasons for the family abandonment credible, if not laudable. Birriel is believable and sympathetic as the outsider quickly realizing she’s in way over her head, and she’s particularly amusing in a monologue where Lucy recounts her habit of dating father figures, bemoaning “Therapy is wasted on me—it just is.” Perrault is emotionally vivid as Erica, initially furious at her absent father, then tentatively trying to trust him. Her blunt question to Lucy at the play’s end is darkly hilarious.

Farmer gives a marvelously controlled performance as Helen, who works and mostly fails at being polite and keeping her anger at bay. Helen’s true feelings and intentions are like an iceberg, mostly hidden, so when she lightens up and remembers happy memories from the past or abruptly lashes out in the present, it’s a genuine surprise. Rieger, however, is indelibly great as Nate, in what will certainly be remembered as one of the best performances of the year. Rieger captures Nate’s social awkwardness yet also clearly displays his strong inner character: a smart, sensitive person in a stammering shell. His acting is seamlessly multilayered, particularly in a scene where he explains the old family tragedy to Lucy. On the surface Nate is being polite, and below that the discussion is bringing up emotions he’d rather repress, and further below that he’s uncomfortably attracted to his father’s young girlfriend. Finally, his intensity and despair in the show’s conclusion are mesmerizing.

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Director Sam Anderson elicits fantastic work from his cast, and he’s alive to all the disparate nuances of the piece, from the way Nate initially tries to stay as physically far away from Richard as possible, while his conversation is friendly and welcoming, to the subtle undercurrents of temper and frustration under Richard’s placid façade. Rebeck has an undeniable skill at confrontational dialogue and portraying people being awful to each other, but she also has a lyrical streak, which is displayed here in a beautiful speech about books being holy. My only quibble with her writing is that she tends to hammer home her points two or three times in a given scene where once would suffice, but overall this is an excellent production of an intriguing play.

“The Water’s Edge” plays at the Road Theatre through March 10. Tickets are available online.