Chicago Theatre Review
By the Water – Northlight
The houselights dim and in the total darkness Lindsay Jones’ deafening, horrendous soundtrack of raging Hurricane Sandy sets the stage for the devastation we’re about to encounter. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s meticulously detailed scenic design of a family beach home in ruins, and the adjoining yard littered with debris, is set somewhere on the eastern coast of Staten Island. It’s an authentic depiction of a house surviving the aftermath of this 2012 disaster. The storm, like so many other recent natural disasters, affected 24 states, leaving entire neighborhoods leveled and thousands of families without homes. But, in Sharyn Rothstein’s riveting midwestern premiere, the physical destruction wrought by the hurricane is a perfect metaphor for the deterioration of the Murphy family.
As the lights come up, devoted, middle-aged, blue-collar couple Mary and Marty Murphy enter what’s left of their seaside house, following the unforgiving tempest. Soon their two estranged sons show up to survey the remains of their childhood home and offer some help. Strait-laced, married, older brother Sal is the more successful of the two boys, happily living now in a tiny apartment in
Manhattan; devilishly charming younger sibling Brian, who recently served time in prison for dealing drugs, still has a certain allure that attracts the attention of Emily, his recently-divorced former girlfriend. She’s the daughter of the Murphy’s best friends, Andrea and Philip Carter, whose home was completely leveled.
As the 100 minute drama gradually unfolds we come to fully understand the Murphy family, as well as their longtime relationship with the Carters. By the end of this story, we feel as if we’ve just spent some quality time with old friends. From the very beginning, the audience can see that Marty is a bossy,
stubborn man, a guy who dearly loves his wife and has been in charge of running his whole family for his entire life. He isn’t about to relinquish any of this authority or take anyone else’s advice, least of all from his more prosperous son, Sal. Marty refuses to leave his storm-ravaged house and tries to
organize a movement against the government’s buyout for the affected families. He tells his wife, kids and friends, “This is where we belong. It’s where everyone knows us. We have a history here.” But we gradually learn of Marty’s secret past affairs that are the real reason he can’t leave his Staten Island homestead. Soon the Murphy family is ripped apart, much like their storm-riddled house, and repairing personal relationships becomes far more difficult than restoring their home.
Cody Estle directs this production with grit and determination, mining those special, quieter moments when love triumphs against all odds. His cast features some of Chicago’s finest actors doing their best work. Francis Guinan is superb as Marty. No one can convey inner conflict and anguish like Mr. Guinan, and in Estle’s production he’s, once again, magnificent. We feel his trouble, pain, embarrassment and need for redemption as Marty maneuvers through the intricacies of this story. He’s matched moment-for-moment by the incomparable Penny Slusher. Her beautiful, sensitively-portrayed Mary Murphy is a loving woman, a caring individual who’s devoted her entire life to her husband, children, friends and her Staten Island home. Having endured several decades of struggle and survival, she views this latest calamity as just another bump on life’s road that she’ll survive with the love and devotion of her husband. Then she learns the real truth and discovers the secrets that Marty has kept from her. It’s enough to destroy both Mary and her faith in her marriage.
An impressive performance is turned in by Jordan Brown, who’s been enjoyed in many comic roles, such as Goodman’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” and “Wonderful Town.” His Sal is intense, honest and multi-dimensional. Mr. Brown plays his role energetically, with intelligence, moxie and a motivation to help his family, but equally spiked with continual frustration and belligerence. He’s definitely his father’s son. As the smartest, most successful member of the Murphy clan, Sal soon learns that no good deed goes unpunished. As Brian, the affable, yet far more troubled younger son, Joel Reitsma makes his stunning debut with Northlight. As this hard-working young man, who enjoys his new position cooking at a Manhattan Olive Garden, he harbors a grudge toward his older brother, even though he finally realizes that he’s learned many life lessons through his incarceration. Together, these two talented young actors play a pair of siblings who are the yin and yang of this family.
The members of the Carter family are played with bluntness and integrity by the always wonderful Janet Ulrich Brooks, as Andrea, and Patrick Clear, as Philip. We fully believe they’re a real married couple who’ve been to hell and back. These two people have not only weathered an actual storm but also the turmoil of a slightly rocky marriage. But, like so many couples of that generation, they’ve persevered. They’ve survived it all and will continue to move on, including accepting the government’s probable buyout. They’ll probably reluctantly relocate to a new, safer location. Both Ms. Brooks and Mr. Clear are undeniably masters of their craft. They’re joined by the talented Amanda Drinkall as daughter Emily. She’s survived her own personal tumult, in the form of a separation and divorce, as well as a broken romantic relationship long ago with Brian. But as Emily and Brian reunite, a flame seems to still be smoldering inside both of these young people. Ms. Drinkall, as usual, plays this young woman with a richness full of realism and charisma.
Cody Estle’s fine direction mines all the talent and naturalism from his perfectly-cast ensemble. He brings searing life to Sharyn Rothstein’s compact drama that expertly employs the survival of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction as a symbol for a family ripped apart by lies and deception. Set amid Jeffrey Kmiec’s meticulously accurate scenic artistry, bathed in lighting by JR Lederle and accented by a perfect sound design composed by Lindsay Jones, this is one of the finest of the many new productions to play Chicagoland this Spring.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 16-April 23 by Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.