The deteriorating effects of climate change on the environment and the deteriorating effects of aging on the body are the subjects of Tina Howe’s new play, Singing Beach, which had its world premiere opening Sunday at HERE Mainstage in SoHo. In characteristic Howe fashion, these heavy topics are presented, and then transformed into a vision of hope. I loved it.
Under the direction of Ari Laura Kreith, the cast of seven glide easily from reality to fantasy in the July of a not-too-distant future in Manchester, MA. A family of four — parents Merrie (Erin Beirnard) and Owen (John P. Keller) and their children, 10-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss) and 12-year-old Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill) — are faced with two decisions, whether to evacuate their beachside town as Hurricane Cassandra approaches with 150-mile-an-hour winds and whether to commit Merrie’s father, Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan), to a nursing home now that a stroke has left him unable to care for himself. He had been a famous poet but now is without words.
Piper is the focal point of the play and Morss portrays her to perfection. This little girl must overcome the torments of her big brother, who annoyingly calls her Sniper instead of Piper, and her feelings of inadequacy. “I’m just a narrow person in a quiet room,” she says, borrowing from the title of one of her mother’s successful novels.
But the life force is strong in Piper and she envisions a brighter world for herself and her grandfather that features escaping on a luxury liner and ice skating on the ocean in mid-July. These flights of fancy are a hallmark of Howe’s plays, as are her shimmering endings.
Howe loves extravagance, which often makes staging her work challenging — and expensive. The Broadway production of Coastal Disturbance, another seaside play, featured six tons of sand that had to be doused with 20 gallons of water before each performance. It was a joy to walk into Circle in the Square on a cold winter night and have a beach experience, with the lighting conveying the warmth of a day at the seashore.
That kind of staging is impossible for a small Off-Broadway company like Theatre 167 at HERE, but it doesn’t matter. Scenic designer Jen Price Fick has created a multi-leveled stage of pale wood on which the beach, ship, sick room and everything else play out, with a minimum of props. Matthew J. Fick’s lighting enhances the bleached out, colorless feeling of beachside quiet before the storm. With the good script, good direction and good cast, which includes Naren Weiss and Devin Haqq, we have all we need for a transporting experience, with characters lying on the deck of an imaginary ship making angels in the imaginary July snow and skating without skates on an imaginary frozen ocean.
Piper reminded me of another of my favorite Tina Howe characters, Pony from 1989’s Approaching Zanzibar. Pony also feels inferior in her family and must relate to an elderly character, her great aunt Olivia who is dying of cancer. She’s fearful at first but she also has the imagination and high spirit to transform her world. And both girls have their moment to fly, one of the many lovely visual treats Howe gives us in both plays.
Another Howe play I was reminded of was Chasing Manet, her 2009 work that brought together two elderly women in a nursing home who plot their escape to Paris on the QEII.
And I thought of Painting Churches, Howe’s breakout play from 1983, in which an elderly couple must sell their large Boston townhouse for a move to a cottage on Cape Cod. Gardner Church had been a famous writer, just as Ashton Sleeper in Singing Beach was, but dementia and incontinence leave him as a mere remembrance of his old self. Both plays present painful scenes of going though a lifetime of belongs with the task of deciding what to take and what to give away. These are sad experiences, ones that I went through with my mother. I never leave a Tina Howe play sad, though. I leave with a sense of joy because of her playful plot twists and those resurrection endings she creates.
When I first interviewed her, in 1990 for my second Master’s thesis that was on her work, I asked her about her mastery of dynamic closings. They are a major focus of her work and, she said, usually surprise her as much as her audiences.
“The ending is everything to me,” she said. “To me the whole point of writing a play is to sculpt that shock, that visual shock. I think that’s my strongest suit in a way. Often the ending is what comes last, but I just know it has to be an epiphany. I do struggle long and hard to try to come up with something strong.”
She has done it again. You will be won over by Piper and the delicious world she creates, the one created for her by Tina Howe, a playwright of epiphanies.