Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
Chenango River Theatre finishes up its 2019 season with a soul-searing yet satisfying two-person drama that speaks to the redemptive power of love and trust, Edward J. Moore’s The Sea Horse.
At first glance, the play, directed by Bill Lelbach, appears to be a maritime version of Terrance McNally’s Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune that is transplanted to the 1970s San Francisco dockyards. However, it takes The Sea Horse two full acts to reveal the mutual solace that Frankie and Johnny seem to have found from the opening curtain.
A two-person play is demanding for each actor and none more so when the duo is a man and woman who are finding their way to a future relationship, all the while stumbling over past mistakes and deep emotional wounds covered by multiple layers of psychological scar tissue.
Megan Sells delivers a sterling performance as an overweight, lonely and haunted woman who’s as unlovely and miserable as her name, Gertrude Blum. To the role of roving merchant seaman Harry Bales, Seth Rue brings an equally believable charm and exuberance that disguise his insecurities. Their complicated tango of desire, affection, distrust and holding on to fondest dreams that may never come true doesn’t miss a step as it develops over the course of the roughly 90-minute play.
The only plot fault is the somewhat erratic and spotty exposition of the first act. It’s as if a car were veering all over the road, almost hitting pedestrians, but then the driver takes it firmly in hand in the second act and guides it at top speed to its destination. Patience will be rewarded.
If there is a third character to the play, it is the highly evocative stage set of a dingy and depressing watering hole, also designed by Lelbach, which features a vintage juke box, cigarette vending machine, pool table and pinball game. As a companion noted, “You can almost smell the smoke and the stale beer in the air.” Indeed, the Sea Horse has a sinister backstory of its own that gradually comes to light in the second act.
For such a truly odd couple to make a match is a tall order. Gertrude calls him a “talker” — all boast and bluster, a head full of dreams, which include buying a fishing boat and being his own boss, marrying and having a son. We learn that they fell in love, or lust, at first sight a year earlier, and Harry has since put aside all the other women that sailors can easily find in any port. He wants her to open up to him because “I’m special,” but she will have none of it.
Gertrude wants not to be “loved” but respected. When we learn about her gut-wrenching past of abuse and betrayal, it’s no wonder she prefers to crack unruly patrons over the head with a beer bottle rather than make cheerful chitchat. Her girlhood dreams — whether to be a graceful dancer (she still has a favorite record to which she pirouettes around the barroom on occasion) or be a seafarer herself — are long dead and buried. Sells can bring both pathos and humor as needed to her role.
Rue is a natural comedian with winning smiles and broad gestures as he tries to coax Gertrude out of her frequent bad moods. In a fine comic scene that also underlines the genuine passion he feels, his duffel bag receives his amorous attentions while Gertrude not only watches but responds.
Both actors are masterful in the use of poignant silences, telling looks and small gestures that speak volumes. How does a person who is so wounded and hurt show love, affection, concern for another? By making breakfast oatmeal out of stale crumbs meant for the birds, or when Gertrude sniffs the towel Harry used to dry off, inhaling one final time the essence of the man she has dared to love. While the language the two use is loud, profane and, at times, vicious and contradictory, their smallest acts of tender caring truly convey what is in their hearts.
Love won’t come without trust first for these two. Between Gertrude’s carefully constructed defenses and Harry’s almost delusional banter, that looks unlikely, especially in the final scene. Bruce Springsteen howls, “Well now, I ain’t no hero, that’s understood/All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood”, as “Thunder Road” blasts from the jukebox, and our unlikely couple show they’re ready to take that long walk together.
IF YOU GO: The Sea Horse, which opened the weekend of Sept. 27-29 at the Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Route 12, Greene, will continue Oct. 3-13 with Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 ($27 on Saturday). Several performances are nearly sold out. Visit chenangorivertheatre.org to purchase tickets.