nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 28, 2010
With Wake, Bryn Manion and her collaborators at Aisling Arts have created one of the most beautiful and moving new dramas of the year. Like their previous Force trilogy, this is an epic work that explores the most fundamental issues of being human. The twin focuses here are on destiny and heredity. What are the forces that push people together, letting (making?) them discover their soulmate? And what do parents give to their children; and what do children ever know or understand about their parents and how they shaped them?
Wake centers on three generations of the Sullivan family. The earliest story chronologically takes place in 1938 and is about the two Sullivan brothers, Daniel and Michael, and how their paths come to cross with an independent-minded woman named Margaret Caulfield in St. John's, Newfoundland. The elder brother, Daniel, is in the import/export trade; an Irish immigrant, he has settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and he gets to know Margaret via letters related to their business. The younger brother, Michael, is captain of a ship in the employ of his brother, and when he sails into St. John's, he and Margaret meet in person, and the lives of both brothers and this young woman become inextricably bound.
Margaret's son, Dan Sullivan, is the central figure in the second story, which is set in the late 1960s/early 1970s. This tale tracks Dan's courtship of, and eventual marriage to, a proud and smart young woman named Kathy whom he first meets in the diner where she works, supporting herself during high school and then college. Dan wants to be a writer, and he becomes a very famous one, though in this section of the play all that is far in his future.
The third generation of Sullivans are the subject of the third, contemporary story in Wake. Dan and Kathy have four children, the older two of whom—Sean and Maura—are married and settled in careers and lifestyles, while the younger two—Kevin and Deirdre—seem to be lost souls very much adrift. Kevin and Deirdre are the narrators of Wake as well as the first of its characters that we meet, and their journeys, joint and separate, dominate the play. They look back to their ancestors for clues about how and why they got to be who they are—and in one of many deft directorial touches, their ancestors constantly watch them (and the rest of the family) make their way through the mysteries and vagaries of life.
The foregoing only just scratches the surface of the vibrant, wise, passionate tale that unfolds in this remarkable play. The narrative is nonlinear and non-chronological, so the characters and their lives are revealed to us in waves. The pivotal emotional relationships form the play's (very strong) backbone: at one end Margaret and the two Sullivan brothers, at the other Deirdre and a detective named Bill Dempsey, and in the center—radiating off in all directions—the enduring love between Dan and Kathy, a love fueled seemingly by fate alone.
Manion and her co-directors Wendy Remington Bowie and David Vining realize this huge story with ingenuity and simplicity in an environmental staging at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City; not a traditional theatre space at all, but rather a large welcoming room that they've lined with chairs for audience members interspersed with furniture and props that evoke all of the many locations and times contained in the play; it's as if we are living inside this family's collective memory. An extraordinary ensemble of 15 actors bring the play's characters to vivid life, creating characters who are richly human and enormously memorable. Manion and Bowie each play a central figure from one of the generations—Deirdre Sullivan and Margaret Caulfield, respectively—and their performances as these two smart, questing women anchor the play beautifully. Mickey O'Sullivan is the play's other anchor as Kevin in a portrayal that's rich and moving and matched by his other turn as Michael Sullivan in the '30s-era story. O'Sullivan is a charismatic and thoughtful actor, one to definitely keep an eye on.
Evan Beskin also has two important roles, as Deirdre's probable soulmate Bill Dempsey and Michael Sullivan's older brother Daniel; he creates such different characterizations that I had to check my program to discover they were played by the same actor. Bradley Wells inhabits the expansive soul of the young Dan Sullivan and the more contracted soul of his elder son Sean. Catherine Michele Porter completes the Sullivan brood as maddeningly pragmatic elder sister Maura, while Lillith Fallon and Wendy Merritt portray Kathy Sullivan as, respectively, a young bride in the '60s story and a recent widow in the contemporary one. Contributing mightily in various smaller roles (doubling and/or tripling in them) are Ryan Wesley Brown, Mara Gannon, Rebecca Davis, Cody Magouirk, Giverny Petitmermet, Barry Rowell, and co-director David Vining (very funny in a couple of cameos). This company is doing work here that's breathtakingly good.
Wake, a shade longer than three hours, falters just a bit in its final act: I left not fully understanding what had ultimately pushed Kevin and Deirdre into the separate directions their lives end up taking. But this in no way lessens the achievement of this rich, uplifting, and stirring work, and I will cherish the experience of seeing Wake and immersing myself in the humanity of its characters and their histories.