A Summer Day
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
October 23, 2012
Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s A Summer Day has an opaque, elliptical quality somewhere between fable and ghost story; there’s something impenetrable about its emotional core even when it seems most straightforward, and something deliberately abstract about its characters. (For one thing, most of them are nameless, obviously and intentionally so.) It becomes clear early on that the first two characters we meet, two older women, share a long history, and that something terrible happened on a long-ago day, something that involved both the narrator of the play and her friend, something that has haunted the teller from that day to this. The teller nibbles at the edges of the story of that day, drawing it out moment by moment, almost as if she’s reliving that day in real time, layering her present over her past. When she finally gets to the core of that story, the event itself feels almost inevitable because the groundwork has been so thoroughly prepared for it: by the way the telling unspools, the way each moment of her emotional journey is evoked, and the way the present and past time frames intersect in physical space. The character seems to be living as much in that past as in the present, which I think is part of what creates the ghostly feeling.
In the present, it’s a beautiful summer day, and an older woman, living alone in an old country house on the shore of a bay, is visited by her friend while the friend’s husband does some errands in the city; it seems that this type of visit has taken place many times, though perhaps not terribly recently. The friend goes out to enjoy a walk by the water, and as the woman stands by the window and sees her friend travel down the road toward the shore, she’s thrown back into the memory of an autumn day, many years ago. And as she’s thrown into that memory, it comes alive, with the older woman evoking, and watching, her younger self. (It also seems clear that she spends a lot of time staring out that window, so this revisiting of the past has probably occurred before and will again.)
On that day, she stood by the same window, waiting for the arrival of the same friend, and watched her husband walk down the same road, to go spend the afternoon on his small boat out in the bay, as he’d done almost every day since the two moved out of the city and to this country home. (The mirroring of the older and younger pairs is nicely underscored by color and pattern in Deb O’s costume design.) The younger woman is a little afraid of the water, doesn’t ever want to be out on it in a small boat, which means she and her husband are spending less and less time together.
The husband, Asle, is the only character in the play with a name: the one who “was here and then suddenly he was gone,” the one who doesn’t exist in the play’s present tense—and that non-existence is at the heart of the piece. He goes out on his boat, on one particular chilly, rainy, windy autumn afternoon—partly, he admits, to avoid encountering the friend and partly because that’s what he always does—and is expected back shortly throughout most of the play. The woman is anxious about his absence throughout, in a way she admits is somewhat unreasonable, but she can’t shake it. And when it starts to get dark, and starts to rain harder, and the friend’s husband returns to pick her up, and Asle is still not back, that anxiety shifts into fear, and into a terrible certainty.
Throughout, something feels just slightly surreal about the way these people interact and behave. Their language (in director Sarah Cameron Sunde’s colloquial yet stylized translation) is full of little conversational tics and echoes, of returns to the same words and phrases and ideas, teasing around them without ever pushing too hard. And the constantly repeated patterns of action and language—both intriguing and frustrating—contribute to a feeling of stasis.
Clearly, as these people (both the friends, and the husbands and wives) circle around and over and reiterate the same topics of conversation—the water, the weather, the boat, moving to the country—they’re shying away from a deep well of things left unsaid. Small clues point to the ripples in the surfaces of these relationships: the way Asle folded his clothes before leaving that afternoon; the revelation that he knew his wife’s friend before he’d met his wife, but nonetheless doesn’t want to see her now; the nagging tension over whether the couple is happy in their country house.
There’s something terribly wrong here, something sensed rather than explained. Leah Gelpe’s almost subliminal sound design, and her gorgeous projections at a climactic moment that make it seem like the stage is marooned at sea, work beautifully to heighten this unsettling mood. Sunde’s direction, too, has a spiky undercurrent, playing into the stylization of the language, hitting the piece’s rhythmic qualities rather than falling into more naturalistic patterns.
Yet the specific nature of that wrongness is hard to pin down, even from the perspective of the older woman who’s had so much time to look back on that day, and on her younger life. We can see a clear change in energy from younger to older, but not necessarily in comprehension. Samantha Soule’s restless edginess smoothes out into Karen Allen’s rueful, consciously grasped calm—the woman has made peace with the events, learned how to live past them, learned even how to enjoy her solitary life, but not really how to escape their grasp. Her primary human relationship is still with her own younger self—or with her memories, even her ghosts—trapped in the place where everything changed for that self.