By Ruth Ross
With cellphones so ubiquitous and their cameras getting better with each new iteration, it’s inevitable that some of our most vulnerable moments might be inadvertently chronicled. Most of the time, we often consign such photos to the albums on our phones, to be forgotten. (Right L-R: Gary Glor, Daria M. Sullivan, Noreen Farley, Andre DeSandies)
But what happens when a photographer selects that record of a private moment and submits it for publication or in a competition without our consent, and it wins? How much does the photographer owe us, the unwitting subjects of the winning photo, for intruding on our lives?
This conundrum faces two photographers—a generation apart—in Richard Willett’s drama, Grief at High Tide, now receiving its world premiere at Vivid Stage in Summit.
When struggling New York photographer Jennifer Evers tells her entomologist husband Christopher that the photo she secretly entered in a very prestigious competition she took of him at his mother’s deathbed—the one he never gave her permission to take and asked her not to show anyone—it doesn’t go well. To investigate the role art plays in real-life relationships, Jennifer goes out on assignment to California to create a piece on a Pulitzer Prize−winning photograph, Grief at High Tide, which changed the lives of everyone involved.
To assuage her own guilt at having betrayed her husband, Jennifer seeks the counsel of Roy, the taker of the prize-winning picture featuring a grieving couple standing on the beach, locked in grief, realizing that their three-year-old daughter has been suddenly swept out to sea.
Vivid Stage’s Artistic Director Laura Ekstrand’s directorial hand keeps melodrama at bay as the characters embark upon a roller coaster of often-conflicting emotions. The play clocks in at 90 minutes without an intermission so the tension is wound pretty tight.
As Jennifer, Daria M. Sullivan (above, left) is convincingly earnest as a young woman who seeks recognition for her art, recognition denied by her family and not fully understood by her right-brain thinking scientist husband. Her pain is palpable as she wrestles with the possibility that, in her quest for fame, she has betrayed the person nearest and dearest to her. As Christopher, Andrew Binger (right) is appropriately clueless about the power of creativity, confining his attention to the ant specimens in his lab (he’s convinced that ants “talk”) and the couple’s attempts to get pregnant, which he reduces to what feels like a scientific experiment, rather than an act of connubial intimacy. Binger gets the nerdiness right, but he doesn’t appear comfortable onstage, so it’s difficult to feel sympathy for his character. Perhaps subsequent performances will loosen him up, so he acts more naturally.
Veteran actor Gary Glor (left, with Sullivan) splendidly conveys the offhand arrogance of Roy, Jennifer’s older counterpart. Calling himself “an ambulance chaser” for whom “drama was [his] middle name,” Glor’s Roy puts up a brave, rather cavalier, front at first, only to fall apart after Jennifer questions his accountability to the photo’s couple for invading their grief.
And, of course, it’s the couple at the crux of the accountability enigma who effect the dramatic evolution of the other characters. Noreen Farley does a masterful turn as Nancy Windsor, a wise-cracking drunk, the very embodiment of grief, who goes out on the beach every day, calling her daughter Laurie’s name. Farley’s expressive face, especially her sad eyes, fiercely telegraphs her emotions and breaks our hearts. As her husband Doug, Andre DeSandies is less affecting; on opening night, he, too, seemed rather uncomfortable onstage and wasn’t very convincing, but he’s a veteran actor so he too might improve in future performances.
Zach Pizza’s set takes us to various venues where the action occurs, from Jen and Christopher’s apartment to two beach verandas, one for Roy and the other for the Windsors. Jeff Knapp’s sound, starting with the songs about leaving before the play begins to the sound of gulls and the ocean, is superb, and Pizza’s atmospheric lighting design aptly depicts the passage of time.
Grief at High Tide addresses the conflicts between art and reality, creativity and science, photographer and subject, privacy and fame. Willett’s play may not resolve these conflicts, but he certainly gives us something to think about the next time we point our cellphone camera and tap the button.Grief at High Tide will be performed at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Avenue, in Summit through Sunday, October 15. Remaining performances are October 12, 13, and 14 at 8 PM and October 15 at 2 PM. There will be a talkback after the Sunday performance. For information and tickets, call the box office at 908-514-9654 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org online.