Theatre Review: “Tar Beach” at FAU Theatre Lab

All photos courtesy of Julia Rose Photo

“Tar Beach” is set in New York City in July 1977, and it’s hot. Punishingly hot. “Do the Right Thing” hot. There are multiple references, in Tammy Ryan’s script, to characters needing to peel their arms from the covering on their kitchen table. “We sit here, sticking to the vinyl tablecloth and waiting for the end of the world,” says its central character, Reenie. We get this; just about any native Floridian has been there.

But the award-nominated memory play, which is earning its Southeastern premiere at Theatre Lab at FAU, has more on its mind than oppressive weather events. On the surface, the narrative also deals with astrology, Greek mythology, the Son of Sam murders and the effects of a power outage on a metropolitan area, motifs that cohere stronger than you might think. Between the lines, on a macro level, “Tar Beach” is a bildungsromanabout the haze of memory and the loss of innocence amid a fractured household—vintage, weighty themes for the American stage, delivered in a production that is creative and engaging, if not quite as compelling as it could be.

Reenie (Abby Nigro), who at 14 is the youngest child in her family of four, is also its resident introvert, given to penning unorthodox poetry in a diary she keeps under lock and key. Adept at literature and philosophy but naïve about life, she obsesses about the papier-mâché Medusa head she completed for a school project—a satisfyingly repulsive counter to the prettier, more benign deities constructed by her classmates. Her carefree older sister, Mary Claire (Krystal Millie Valdes), doesn’t get it, and by extension doesn’t get Reenie.

It’s a particularly momentous time for Reenie and her family. She’s just begun menstruating, at a time when her father, Roger (David Hyland), a bearish fellow with a drinking problem, has been laid off from his job. Her mother, Brigit (Niki Fridh), works too, but it’s hardly enough to sustain the household; at home, she mostly sleeps, smokes and stews on the sticky kitchen table, amassing travel brochures for getaways she’ll never get to enjoy.

Meanwhile, Son of Sam’s murder spree dominates the headlines, but Mary Claire and her best friend, Mary Francis (newcomer Amy Coker), have no fear: They’re planning to join a raucous party on Rockaway Beach, complete with Zeppelin on the playlist, boys under the boardwalk, and pot smoke in the air. Their parents, not quite wise to the full scope of the itinerary, allow the Marys a night of freedom, under one condition—they take Reenie with them.

This decision will prove life-changing for Reenie, whose traumatic experience that night—coinciding, with ominous synchronicity, with a citywide blackout—leaves the show’s narrator silent for much its second act. It sounds insulting to suggest that Nigro’s performance is strongest when she doesn’t speak, but she embodies the aftermath of assault as an ocean of buried pain, a desire to shrink into nonexistence, away from prying eyes and invasive questions. It also allows her to act without affecting her character’s inconsistent Queens—or Staten Island? Or Bronx?—accent, a struggle from the first line.

Valdes, though quick-witted and dervish-like in her performance, could nonetheless benefit from dialing back her character’s hysteria. She plays Mary Claire with the petulance of a much younger child, prone to tantrums that are disproportionate from the more grounded responses of her fellow ensemble.

Theatre Lab’s design team once again excels at creating an electric, immersive atmosphere in a space that belies grand ideas. Michael McClain’s deft scenic design is framed around a towering IKEA-style shelving unit sprawling across the stage and dividing the siblings’ bedrooms; the props in each square, designed by John Shamburger, speak to the personalities of each daughter.

Matt Corey’s sound design masterfully assembles the familiar aural ambience of New York City—sirens, EMT vehicles, an airplane approaching and receding overhead—as well as the deceptively serene waves of its beaches, the background noise of druggy rock ‘n’ roll, and the lighting pops of the blackout. Jayson Tomasheski’s lighting design varies from a single bulb illuminating a stuffy attic to the constellations of stars blanketing the night sky to the epileptic shock of the power outage, with its spastic flashes of light and, then, pitch-blackness.

Matt Stabile, adding an occasional flourish of surrealist whimsy to the dark proceedings, directs with an innate understanding of both his generations of characters—in this case, the hormonal whims of scheming adolescents and the withering husk of a loveless marriage. It’s this last element, a secondary plot in Ryan’s script, that the production most vividly realizes.

Hyland and Fridh are a textbook study in the way a dysfunctional marriage can gnaw away at the soul until there’s nothing left. Though triggered, this time, by a heat wave and Roger’s employment status, we get the impression they’ve been broken for years. Their traded insults, once barbed, have become so commonplace they’ve lost their sting. “Tar Beach” may end on a note of quivering hope, but it’s Fridh’s wordless death stare—and Hyland’s flailing failure to provide for his family—that no optimistic closure could paint over.

“Tar Beach” runs through Dec. 16 at Theatre Lab at FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $35. Call 561/297-6124 or visit fauevents.universitytickets.com.