A Home Across the Ocean
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 18, 2010
Cody Daigle's new play A Home Across the Ocean is about family; it's also about change. Connor and Daniel, a gay couple in their early 30s who have been together six years, want to begin a family of their own, and so have brought 13-year-old Penny into their home as a foster child. Grethe, Connor's mother, has just lost her husband to a sudden heart attack and is striving mightily to fill the void left in her family by creating a new identity for herself—she writes to a man she hasn't seen in 35 years and is delighted when he responds. Three months later, he comes to visit her and the romantic feelings they shared long ago are sparked anew.
Each of the two main storylines in A Home Across the Ocean would provide plenty of sustenance for a play and I wondered if Daigle has done himself a disservice by pursuing both in this single piece. I was particularly intrigued by the Connor/Daniel/Penny plot. Daigle gives us some intriguing information: Daniel has been boning up on how to deal with their new daughter by reading self-help books about adoption, something that Connor ridicules. (Why?) We're told that the men specifically chose Penny because she is a special-needs child who has gone into a number of foster families without success, but we don't have any back story about why this was important to them. We also observe Grethe interfering/helping them with Penny, but this begs the question of where Grethe had been during the eight months that her son and his partner were planning (and presumably going through a maze of bureaucracy to become eligible for) Penny's arrival.
The story of Grethe's rebirth following the death of her husband interested me less, but certainly contains the germs of an intriguing drama. The man she reunites with is Mhambi Nobhule, a Nigerian expat who was brought up and now lives in London (he's a university professor). They met in college and, although the specifics aren't exposed until late in the play, it's clear from the start that the two had a romantic attachment. When Mhambi arrives and the two are able to pick up their relationship where it left off in the mid-'70s—against considerable odds, it seemed to me—Connor reacts strongly. Why had Grethe never told her son about this man who has apparently remained so important to her? Why does she fail to understand that, just a few months after his father's death, her son might have issues about what seems, from his perspective, to be a quick rejection and replacement of his dad in her life?
I also wondered how Grethe was able to find time, just three weeks after discovering her husband dead in their bathroom, to so completely remodel her persona? I remember all the bureaucratic tedium that my mother had to wade through when my father died: not weeks but months of sending out death certificates, switching over credit cards, responding to condolences. (I also wondered what Grethe was living on: her late husband, we are told, taught high school English—not exactly the highest-paying job in the world.)
Now, the fact that I kept getting stuck on all these details says perhaps as much about me and my predilections and experiences as it does about Daigle's play. Technically, A Home Across the Ocean is certainly commendable indie theater. All five actors do good work, especially Alex Bond as the mother and Lavita Shaurice Burr as Penny (very convincingly 13, though we're told in the program that she's a college graduate). Dev Bondarin's direction serves the play well, with the possible exception of too much moving around of the few set pieces to define new locations (this slows things down, particularly in Act Two).
But emotionally, A Home Across the Ocean didn't work for me, because frankly I did not like and could not relate to these people on any level. I kept looking for a moment of compassion, of consideration; but one doesn't really come. These are hard, insulated people that Daigle is writing about. There's a moment, for example, when the usually reticent Penny tells Grethe, who is preparing for a dinner date with Mhambi, that she looks like her birth mother. "You look like my mom," she says. " In my bag, I have a picture of her." I assumed Grethe would ask to the see the photo. Instead she says, "Then, I'm ready to go."