UNION, NJ — “The Wake,” the 2019 Premiere Stages Play Festival winner, by Tammy Ryan, is currently at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University through Sunday, July 28.
Directed by Glen Ridge resident John Wooten, the play is about two estranged sisters reuniting in a rented Florida beach house to bury at sea the ashes of their alcoholic sister, Colleen. The event, occurring on the eve of a Category 5 hurricane, proves emotionally and physically cataclysmic for the women.
Status-conscience Rosemary is played by Kathy McCafferty, and the thoughtful, guilt-saddled Maggie is portrayed by Kelley Rae O’Donnell. It is Maggie who has arranged for the event, including renting a boat, and choosing the music and a program, but the storm scuttles all that.
The men in the cast are Rosemary’s remote husband, Ed, played by Wayne Maugans, and Maggie’s significant other, the compulsive Doyle, portrayed by James Gushue. The latter is short-tempered and prone to playing harmless tricks to prove a point.
The play opens with Maggie and Doyle preparing for the arrival of Rosemary, Ed and the hurricane. While cleaning the floor, Doyle sweeps items under the couch or moves them arbitrarily from place to place as Maggie stocks the house with wine. Much of the characters’ actions are like Doyle’s housekeeping: nothing is ever disposed of, but instead shifts from place to place or remains hidden until a storm churns it up.
Upon their arrival, we find Rosemary bothered by the whole affair of getting rid of the ashes while Ed studies his smartphone to find out how their two children are doing in Disney World. It comes as a great surprise to both when they learn from Maggie and Doyle that a storm is bearing down on them. The couple feels betrayed — it is the eve of their 25th wedding anniversary — and Rosemary takes the first of many drinks.
A confrontation develops between the men over human responsibility to the environment. Doyle, with a patch covering one eye and a tattoo of John Lennon, makes his living selling merchandise on eBay and had helped Maggie care for the hospitalized Colleen. Ed is an accountant in the natural gas industry.
“We’re playing the money game,” Doyle tells Ed. “But who has more fun?”
Suddenly the house is attacked by a pelican, the first of many intrusions by wildlife.
Although there is tension between the women, it is evident that the bonds of sisterhood are great and the two speak freely with each other. Rosemary thinks Ed is having an affair and Maggie says Doyle is a convicted felon.
“I take people at face value,” she says and Rosemary responds by expressing fear of the hurricane and having another drink.
With the storm intensifying, both couples decide it would be better to get the ashes out of the way as soon as possible. But before they can, the storm, named “Hurricane Colleen,” and terrifically staged, forces them to flee for safety, only to be beaten back to the house.
Back at the house, the men and the women grope for reconciliation. The men bond while physically preparing for the storm. The sisters reconcile by revealing something about themselves. Maggie recounts guilt for Colleen’s last days, when she put vodka in her IV tube. Rosemary, dripping wet, relates an unexpected episode she has just experienced in the tumultuous surf, helping a baby turtle past the breakers. The storm passes and birds are heard. The sisters embrace, with Maggie having faced her fear and Rosemary coming face to face with her courage.
In a telephone interview earlier this week, Wooten, the producing artistic director for Premiere Stages, said “The Wake” is a work of magical realism.
“All four characters are on the edge,” he said. “They are trying to navigate their lives and the immediacy. Doyle doesn’t know what’s coming next after the ashes are spread. And Rosemary is at a cusp, definitely.”
A feeling of legacy has much to do with the play, he said. People continue to live if those who survive them can tap into the life of the dead.
“And, of course, there is a lot of topical interest,” Wooten said. “There is our legacy with the world and our responsibility to make sure we honor not only our families but also our world.”
He said a challenge in producing “The Wake” was the hurricane.
“We had sound from the sound designer and the backstage crew banging on the sides,” he said. “It took four days of teching, it was very complicated.”
Wooten said “The Wake” was an interesting play to explore.
“How many times do you have a storm going on and a storm with the characters in a play?” he said.
The next play at Premiere Stages will be “Yasmina’s Necklace,” presented Sept. 5 to 22, written by Rohina Malik and directed by Kareen Fahmy. For more information, visit premierestagesatkean.com.
Photos by Daniel Jackovino and Courtesy of Mike Peters