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A Summer Day

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Karen Allen and the cast.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Sometimes mood can be everything. It is, for example, absolutely crucial to Jon Fosse's play A Summer Day, which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production. Not only are its four characters awash in doubt and confusion of many different flavors, but even the lights above their heads and the floor beneath their feet seem like they've been paralyzed in the middle of their attempts to escape from a concrete, definable reality.

The result is that each of the 80 minutes that comprise the show's running time is committed to telling you that you don't, and can't, know something. This foists you into the play's world in an unexpected, but hardly unwelcome way, letting you experience exactly the questions the people onstage do, in real time. Whether events are unfolding linearly or being invoked from some tortured memory, you never doubt that the stunned, almost immobile responses you're witnessing are exactly what they should be.

That's good from the standpoint that they could not be more appropriate to the subject matter. The story involves nothing more than an older woman (Karen Allen) receiving a visit from a friend (Pamela Shaw) that kindles a recollection of long ago: when her husband, Asle (McCaleb Burnett) took out his boat just as she and her friend (the younger versions are played by Samantha Soule and Maren Bush, respectively) were beginning an afternoon together, and remained on the water just as a storm devastated the seaside where the couple lived.

Exactly what happens, or doesn't, or merely what we think happens (or doesn't), during this span of time is the entire thrust of the piece, and watching events develop (or not) is a pleasure with these performers at the helm. Allen, best known as a screen actress, is remarkable in her role, portraying with an unsettling serenity the older woman's hollowed-out soul. Even when merely standing and looking out at the audience, which she does frequently (it's how the woman watches the water), she conveys an infinite terror-touched wonder, a vibrant, even anxious, inner being locked within absolute stillness.

Soule matches her point for point as the decades-earlier version, and demonstrates exactly why her older self came to be. You see the carefree optimism of youth melt and become calcified and cynical, with each new occurrence permanently scarring her. Shaw and Bush do not quite match the dynamism of their cast mates, but are fine in their own right, and just as detailed at showing how friendships and emotions evolve. Burnett projects a heady distance as Asle that leaves you curious about many things about him, and his marriage. Because Carlo Albán occupies the most corporeal role as the younger friend's husband, he has fewer opportunities than the others to communicate a heightened sense of place and personality, but he makes the most of what he's given.

Director Sarah Cameron Sunde has done much the same thing with A Summer Day as a whole, maximizing every moment, regardless of whether or not it's fueled by dialogue. The fraught opening minute, for example, is utterly silent, with Allen and Shaw nonetheless articulating their entire relationship simply by how they stand, sit, and fail to look at each other. John McDermott's simple house set is adorned with hardly more than a couple of benches, but the way the floorboards bend up to greet them and the way the paint fades as the rear wall vanishes into the flies perfectly highlight the illusory nature of this place and time. Nicole Pearce's lighting expertly complements it all, transitioning slowly but breathlessly from light-infused hope to darkness-choked reality.

The only thing missing, sadly, is a point. Exploring feelings this way is theatrically sound—even advisable—but it must be constructed on something. As richly rendered as everything is, substance is almost nonexistent. You must accept on faith that everyone's struggle here is somehow significant, because Fosse never makes a convincing argument. Fosse takes you on a powerful journey, no doubt, but you end up more or less back where you started, without barely even a tangible souvenir.

You may desperately want something to take away besides an appreciation of the acting and stagecraft, but there's nothing to grab onto. That makes A Summer Day, which is in no way difficult to sit through, extremely challenging to love once you've seen how it shakes out. Uncertainty—of who we are, why we're here, and what (if anything) it all means—is an inescapable part of life. But without a grounding force behind it, its impact on both your mind and your heart is as temporary as a wave crashing against the shore.

A Summer Day
Through November 25
Cherry Lane Theatre, 8 Commerce Street off 7th Avenue, 1 block south of Bleecker.
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