nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2006
Sometimes simplicity is all. The Ledge, a new play by Jack Hanley, has just one actor (Mike Houston) and the sparest of production elements—a hint of music before the play proper begins (written and sung by Alicia Mathewson); a subtle but evocative soundscape; and a stunning, sometimes abstract, sometimes representational backdrop, created from prerecorded video projected onto the rear wall of the intimate Dixon Place stage (this provides the only lighting on stage throughout the piece; with the sound, it's created by Christopher Eaves, who is also the director). The result is a theatrical experience of rare power and beauty: an exploration of our humanity that has the profound capacity to move and uplift its audience.
The Ledge is based on a short story by Lawrence Sargent Hall. I wasn't familiar with it (it won the O. Henry Award in 1959): it's about a Maine fisherman who, as the story begins, is lying dead on a wharf, drowned. It's the day after Christmas, and his wife has come to find him. The last time she saw him before this was Christmas morning, when he went out duck hunting with their son and nephew. For both boys, it was their first day of shooting. The play is told in flashback by the drowned man, who recounts to his wife the catastrophe that transpired.
They leave before dawn, and journey out on a boat into Penobscot Bay. They soon arrive at their destination, a promontory called the Ledge that, for a few hours each day, protrudes far enough above the water to allow men to occupy it—this is the best place to shoot ducks, he tells us, because it's isolated and closer to the ocean, providing first crack at the flocks as they head inland. With his two young charges, the man maneuvers a skiff from the boat to the Ledge, and here they set up temporary camp, waiting for their prey to appear overhead.
It is a stormy day.
Hanley and Houston get us right inside the head of our narrator—proud, resourceful, stubborn, tough. Rugged self-reliance is what he's about, and he's determined to instill the same qualities that have made him the man he is into his son and, if possible, his nephew (the latter boy is soft, he assesses, the result of growing up on a farm instead of by the sea). The first half of the tale is the stuff of an adventure story: teaching the boys how to shoot, setting up decoys, scrambling onto the slippery slope of the ledge. The man's short temper makes it hard-going for the boys; call it tough love.
But when things start to fall apart—and they do, though I won't say more here—the man's tenacity shifts into overdrive as he tries to figure out how to protect the boys and survive himself. The Ledge, slowly and unexpectedly, turns into an epic tale of man against nature, of hubris, and of the redemptive power of love.
The writing is by turns vivid, exciting, intoxicating, and poetic. Hanley's clear, clean words conjure the water, the Ledge, the flocks of ducks in the sky, the gale, the rising water at high tide. Eaves's design—sound and video—provides potent and beautiful imagery from which our mind's eye and ear create the rest, planting us squarely in the middle of the storm with our narrator. As in their previous collaboration Self at Hand, Hanley and Eaves use the simplicity of language and this streamlined video/lighting technique to create a remarkably evocative theatrical experience.
Houston, our narrator/protagonist, delivers an extraordinary performance. His characterization is spot-on and ultimately very moving. Under Eaves's direction, he has perfected a precise vocabulary of movements that define the various constricted spaces in which the story is played out—the boat, the skiff, the Ledge, and the wharf, where he lies dead at the play's beginning and end. We never forget who this man is; or rather, who he was—for we also never forget that it's a drowned man talking to us.
The Ledge is being presented as part of Dixon Place's Under Construction Series for a few more weeks; in its union of experimental video and robust storytelling, it's as affecting a work of theatre as I've seen in quite some time. It deserves a long life after this developmental run.