Review: “On the Shore of the Wide World”

Theater and the City is a column of student-written reviews in the ENGL 400 class taught by Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham.

Characters of family dramas have been prone to yank on our heartstrings—a box of tissues is a fitting accessory for sitting through an episode of “Transparent” with the Pfeffermans—but the Holmes family has a bizarre way of stirring our emotions. Written by British playwright Simon Stephens, “On the Shore of the Wide World” is a grand title for a modest play. The set is bleak. The scenes tend to drag on for much longer than it seems they should, and the characters are cold, distant, and troubled, and thus quite unlikeable.

What is interesting about this play, produced at the Linda Gross Theater and directed by Neil Pepe, is that it effectively takes a number of small, seemingly insignificant moments and makes them profoundly meaningful. The fast-paced, biting dialogue is often captivating, and at times painfully raw. Amongst this dialogue are lines that jolt our attention and evoke a sense of contemplation, lines like “Have you ever done something or thought something and realized your whole life would never be the same again?” Stephens challenges audiences not just to listen to the characters, but to reflect with them as well. This proves to be true whether it be between Alice and Peter Holmes (Mary McCann and C.J. Wilson) who struggle with a fractured marriage or between their sons, Christopher and Alex (Wesley Zurich and Ben Rosenfield). Their family faces multiple blows throughout the two hour and 40 minute performance, which covers the span of almost a year of their lives.

This play tackles a number of grim truths: the tumult of adolescence, the struggles of parenthood, the complexities of relationships, and the fact that family members keep dark secrets from one another. It respectfully addresses addiction in its multiple forms, and the way these addictions manifest in quiet but painful ways.

Stephens also incorporates themes about the brevity of our lives throughout the play, using the stars and moon as proof. He approaches this in the very first scene, in which Alex and Sarah (Tedra Millan), are looking at the moon, and Alex points out that it is 238,000 miles away. “Practically next door,” he says. From a small stage, he reminds us of the immensity of the world.

Stephens also sheds light on the inevitable feelings that life inflicts on the aging. The oldest pair in the play, Charlie and Ellen (Peter Maloney and Blair Brown), are anything but the archetypal elderly couple that is still in love with and tolerant of one another after decades of marriage. They may appear this way to audiences initially, but it is gradually revealed that what is beneath the surface is much darker: apathy, aimlessness, and regret.

Stephens’ indelible writing, paired with gifted acting and intimate directing, gives a sense of universality to “On the Shore of the Wide World”, but not in a comforting way. Don’t see the show with the hopes of a cathartic, emotional finale. This play did not make me cry. It made me fairly uncomfortable, which I think is mostly due to Stephens’ blunt interpretation of the bleakness of our lives, which this cast brilliantly accomplished. The Holmes are a family plagued by a variety of issues, and because of this we feel bad for them and unsettled by them. Then there is the realization that in some ways, we are the Holmes.

Editor’s Note: Tara Marin is the Social Media Editor for the Quadrangle.