The One That Got Away

In one of those moments of wistful reflection millionaire cultural icons are continually forced to endure, John Lennon remarked to an interviewer that he wished he'd been born a fisherman. That comment, in all its elitism and arrogance, fittingly illustrates the myths we've conjured up about the sea and the folk who live and work upon it, our belief that an honest life led in harmony with nature will liberate us from the anguish of civilization.Obviously, it's a ridiculous notion because humans aren't just political animals; we're also pack rats, dragging our baggage with us every step of the way. Just ask Ed Shaw (Vince Campbell), the main character in Peter Dee's A Sea of White Horses, currently playing at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble. Ed has turned to the sea and the ascetic life of the fisherman in hopes of drowning his past: the cancer-riddled wife who rotted away from the inside, the lover he deserted, the three children he never wanted.Now, working in a garage and sleeping alone in a seaside shack, Ed couldn't be more content-until his grown children all coincidentally show up at once. There's Connie (Stefanie Williamson), the daughter Ed had with the black woman he had shacked up with years ago, only to run out on her. There's Stephen (Jacob Hulthage), a vulnerable med student from Boston who's come south looking for his sister, Janice (Kristen Davidson). And Janice, emotionally damaged and borderline psychotic, has sought Dad out to kill herself, simultaneously ending her pain and giving Pops one big, brazen middle finger.Ed responds to this invasion like any man whose skeletons have come a-calling: he drinks, curses, grabs his fishing rod and hides out on the beach, listening to his sea of white horses (the waves breaking) and resisting all of his children's efforts for some type of emotional reckoning.It's potentially potent stuff that flirts with the balance between being responsible and honest with ourselves and with the people in our lives. Unfortunately, Dee's play, hamstrung by forced poetics and equally forced sentimentality, just isn't that good. While his portrait of two families broken by a man ravaged by his inadequacy and guilt should be absorbing, it feels more like unlived experience. Call it Eugene O'Neill lite.The Vanguard production, directed by Jill Forbath Roden, merely highlights these deficiencies. There are too many unrealistic flourishes; this is a play that begs for a naturalistic approach. The set design, courtesy of Jason Beghtol and Robert J. Robertson, achieves this; it's a weather-beaten wooden shack on the edge of the beach, complete with sand and seashells. Unfortunately, there's no consistency on Roden's part to maintain the illusion. In one scene, characters appear onstage dripping wet from a dip in the ocean, sand clinging to their bare calves; in another, Ed enters with one of the most painfully ridiculous props I've ever seen: an iridescent plastic fish positively glowing in his hand. A director can choose pretty much any style for a play within reason-so long as it's consistent. In this case, it just isn't.Roden's pacing contributes to our emotional distance from the characters as well. The opening scene is a perfect example. During the first five minutes, the characters are introduced, the conflict is established, and we should be thoroughly engaged. However, events speed by in overdrive-no one takes a breath, and the actors are so agitated that I was heartily sick of them by the end of the scene. In an emotionally dense play like this, more breathing room early on is sorely needed in order to build the intensity and set the audience's reactions for the rest of the play.The acting also suffers from inconsistency, a fatal flaw in a show that depends so heavily on an ensemble cast. As the flawed patriarch, Campbell's Ed, thankfully, is very strong. It's not an easy task; he has to capture the heroic isolation of a man plagued by demons, as well as the cowardice and selfishness of a man who has run out on two families. Campbell blends those contradictory elements subtly by keeping an even keel throughout; even when his gruff exterior cracks, it never ruptures. There are no easy answers, or even easy emotions, in Ed's life, and Campbell is aware of that.As Miss Fucked-Up Janice, Davidson is hateful but also sympathetic. One minute, she calls her newly discovered half-sister's dead mother a nigger; the next, she poignantly unveils her terror of going mad. Depending on where you register on the tough-love scale, Janice either needs her ass kicked; her hand held; or a continuous, intravenous injection of lithium, Prozac and Haldol. The joy of Davidson's performance is that at any given time, each of those recipes seems required.I was less moved by the other performances. Williamson warms up as the play progresses, but her character requires more subtext and emotional wariness early on to establish her complexity later. Hulthage's Stephen is either too green for the role or horribly misdirected. He whines, mopes and nibbles his lip throughout, and the burning intensity that erupts in him at a couple of key moments is noticeably lacking the rest of the time. Though not driven to madness like his sister, he needs to suggest more depth and honesty than the stock “poor me” response shows.Maybe as the show progresses and the actors begin dictating the tempo, the show will gain organic intensity. All I know is that I found myself agreeing with the bumper sticker “I'd Rather Be Fishing.”A Sea of White Horses at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Sept. 19. $13-$17; $2 discount for students and seniors.

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