Theater Review: ‘By the Water’ emotionally charged, timely

Hurricane Sandy has battered Staten Island’s coastal community, leaving the residents’ houses with mud-splattered beams split down to the sheetrock, their furnishings swept away. In the opening moments of Sharyn Rothstein’s “By the Water” - running through April 8 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park - Marty and Mary Murphy step into the broken shell of their home, speechless with shock and heartbreak. For Sonoma County, this play will obviously be particularly emotionally charged, following the devastating fires of October. Sonoma County fire victims’ decision to rebuild or sell their property is a painful struggle that is beautifully echoed by the Murphy’s similar-but-different situation.

Sound design by Jessica Johnson recreates the thundering storm, ambient seagulls, and screeching hurricane alarm. Mud damage is caked onto the set, dipping curtains in muck, with shoes caught on table legs, and ripped boards scattered across the floor. Designed by Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano, the bedraggled setting is a constant reminder of the Murphys’ loss.

“People are harder to lose than things,” Mary Murphy whispers, afraid of being left alone if their neighbors choose to leave.

Throughout the play, tensions run high, as the realization that they have lost everything strains the Murphy’s family dynamics, opening up festering resentments that are finally given voice after years of suppression. Masks of contentment are stripped away for honest conversations, potentially allowing a chance to heal. Director and Petaluma resident Carl Jordan have crafted complex histories and backstories for the characters, which effectively inform the cast’s reactions. In the program notes, Jordan comments that with the impact of last year’s disaster so present during rehearsal discussions, the play “touches upon these still raw nerves, but with both humor and dignity.”

Mary Gannon Graham effectively portrays Mary Murphy’s unnatural cheerfulness, gradually giving way to outrage as she finds the strength to stand up to Marty (Mike Pavone), who is caught up in his own needs, assuming his wife will quietly listen and agree with his decisions, as she’s always done. Mary’s second-act rant, that she has spent her whole life listening, is enough to shake their marriage loose from its stagnant plateau, potentially evolving it into a real partnership.

Determined to preserve the community where, as Marty puts it, “We know what our lives look like,” the wounded patriarch sets up protests, meetings and flyers, begging neighbors to stay and rebuild. When long-time friends Phillip and Andrea Mancini (Clark Miller, and Petaluma’s Madeleine Ashe) quickly decide to move, Marty is furious at their betrayal, unwilling to understand why they might want to give up and move on.

Younger son Brian Murphy (Jared N. Wright) and Emily Mancini (Katie Kelley, also of Petaluma) add a touch of romance to the story. They had drifted apart after high school, leading to a series of questionable decisions, mostly on the part of Brian, who’s had run-ins with the law. Emily, only slightly more grounded, describes herself as a jumbled wreck like the storm-torn beach, slowly stabilizing.

The more dependable son, Sal Murphy (Mark Bradbury), is the steady, successful one, but he feels ignored and rejected by his family, who take him for granted, focusing their attention on Brian’s uncontrolled behavior. Bradbury portrays him as nervous, keeping to the sidelines, unaccepted in the family circle.

Playwright Rothstein’s language is direct and poignant, although the conveniently neat conclusion is a bit jarring, considering the messy nature of humanity. Nevertheless, “By the Water” is powerfully effective in its emphasis on the need for forgiveness. Less about a natural disaster than about the dynamics of a family forced to make an unspeakably difficult decision, Spreckels’ timely drama explores the question of whether anything can fully restore the Murphys broken lives, asking whether forgiveness alone is enough to bring a glimmer of hope to one family’s future.

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