“Sea Marks” Reveals Deep Costs of Attempting Love

How do we do love?

After the sparks fly from eye to eye, after delirious kisses, after the morning after… what next?

When we’re young,  we want to fly off somewhere to be alone. When we’re a bit older, we have to puzzle out how to put two lives together.

Bill Wolski, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliot)

That’s the knot that Sea Marks works at. It begins as an almost cute tale of two people used to living alone who  start a shy friendship in letters and fall into love. After they joyously join, they spend Act 2 trying to deal with the changes this brings, and fit the lives they’re accustomed to into a single pattern. It’s not clear they’ll succeed.

I said “almost cute.” Playwright Gardner McKay and the Little Fish troupe are skilled enough to avoid the trap. In their hands, we quickly connect to Colm, an Irish fisherman who’s never caught a girlfriend, and Timothea, a Welsh farm girl who’s landed a career in the big city of Liverpool. We sense that each has a rough edge here, a dark corner there, yet we’re charmed (as they are) by the letters, and hope (as they do) for a connection.

As Colm, Bill Wolski creates a powerful, complex character. We’re won by his lengthy opening monolog about living with the sea, yet for all his strength we’re wary of Colm’s innocence; there’s much he doesn’t yet know about the wider world — and his own deeper self. As he follows love’s rose into the world, he’s surprised by the thorns — and by his responses to them. This role is no easy task for an actor, but Wolski handles it masterfully, subtly letting the untried inner Colm emerge bit by bit, keeping us uncertain but hopeful.

Timothea, too, holds much below the surface; but she’s aware of it, a keeper of secrets, not an innocent. When we learn of her hiding, though, we trust her — we know it’s about timidity and tenderness more than power. Holly Baker-Kreiswirth offers us Timothea  so delicately that we delight in the shock of her assertiveness when it’s time for lovemaking. Later, we fear her faith in some of city culture’s values; still later, we share her anguish at having to reveal and stand by the costliest and best of her learning. Baker-Kreiswirth makes it all happen, revealing color after color like a revolving Tiffany lamp. (It seems improbable, but she stepped into the role only a week before opening.)

The production is simple realism — a versatile set by Caitlin Chang and prop designer Teresa Stirewalt, clean lighting (Stacey Abrams) and sound (Christopher Moore), and nicely chosen costumes (Diana Mann). Like the text, however, it conceals more complex depths.

We’re not simply watching a publisher’s assistant and a fisherman fall in love; we’re joining them in the attempt to understand and combine two lives. And these lives are not mere patterns of habit — each has passion at its center, has been found and chosen at cost. Each also carries with it assumptions and beliefs that stepping out of the box will sorely challenge.

Yes, this is a task that confronts any two people who undertake to become partners, in a marriage, a love affair, or even a friendship.
It also looms before us in our civic life, where two disparate cultures, like twins separated at birth, engage in a brutal political war. Can we bring these two worlds, with their passionately believed-in separate realities, into a workable friendship — or at least into dialog?

Theatre, even when it looks like romantic comedy, can bring us to confront ourselves at every level. If it’s doing its job. And in a black box in San Pedro, the artists of Little Fish are using McKay’s Sea Marks to accomplish theatre’s deep work with elegant skill.
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Sea Marks, by Gardner McKay. directed by Richard Perloff.
Presented by Little Fish Theatre, at 777 Centre St., San Pedro 90731.

Aug. 29 (Wednesday),
Aug. 31 (Friday), at 8:00 pm.

Tickets: <www.littlefishtheatre.org>