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Theater Review: Sea Marks

Published August 9, 2006 at 2:54 p.m.

Gardner McKay is one of the most fascinating men you've probably never heard of: actor, playwright, novelist, sculptor, photographer, lion-tamer -- yes, lion-tamer -- and accomplished sailor. It's tempting to aggrandize someone with multiple talents as a cliché "Renaissance Man," or to dismiss someone whose interests shifted continually as a dilettante. Neither label suited McKay, who died in 2001. He just did what he loved, and he did it all quite well.

McKay's 1971 play Sea Marks is a perfect reflection of the man: a modest gem, less about surface flash than the facets underneath. This love story between a lonely Irish fisherman and an ambitious publisher's assistant has a quiet charm that works its way into your heart.

Director Nick Corley has refreshed the two-person piece with a delightful new adaptation that integrates music into the storytelling. This updated version, in its world premiere at Waitsfield's Skinner Barn, floats on a tide of traditional and freshly composed Celtic tunes by the Vermont folk ensemble Atlantic Crossing, who fiddle, strum and drum throughout the show. There were surprisingly few rough edges, even on opening night. The combination of stellar acting and a toe-tapping score made Sea Marks a swimming success.

"The simpler the stories, the more epic they are," McKay was once quoted as saying. And characters don't get any simpler, on the surface, than Sea Marks' Colm Primrose: a middle-aged fisherman conversant in mackerel, gulls and gales, but barely acquainted with electricity or women. He lives on a remote, rocky island off the coast of western Ireland, where his fishing partner is a father figure called the MacAfee. Colm looks forward to "coming off the water at night," rather than drowning, and drinking whiskey with his fellow fisherman at the pub.

He seems content never to have "courted" -- until a woman from Liverpool, visiting the island for her cousin's wedding, catches Colm's eye. But the vision of Timothea Stiles, the city sophisticate in a red dress, sparks his imagination, and he begins an awkward correspondence with her. She doesn't remember Colm at first -- despite his inelegant collision with a punchbowl at the reception -- but gradually warms to him over many months of letter writing. The passionate way he describes the land and the water intrigues her.

Romance blossoms via post across the Irish Sea. When Timothea returns to the island for another cousin's nuptials, the smitten Colm agrees to accompany her back to Liverpool. The transition from a written courtship to a physical one is difficult; even harder is taking the fisherman out of the elements that nourish his soul. The biggest shock is what career-minded Timothea has done with the poetic prose of Colm's letters: She let her boss turn them into a book entitled Sea Sonnets.

The publication of his intimate thoughts embarrasses Colm. He reluctantly agrees, because he loves Timothea, insisting only that the volume be renamed Sea Marks, after "those lines that the highest reach of the tide leave on the land to remind you that it'll be back." His discomfort increases -- with the city and the relationship -- as he finds himself marketed as the "primitive" poet of Clifforn Heads. In the end, shocking news from home about the MacAfee arrives like a cold jolt of seawater, and the title of Colm's book foreshadows his own destiny.

Casting is critical in a two-person love story. If the actors can't conjure believable chemistry, then it doesn't matter how compelling the script is. With Jim Price as Colm and Kate Kearney-Patch as Timothea, director Corley hit a home run. Both actors are seasoned pros with a wealth of Broadway, off-Broadway and national credits. They worked marvelously together, tracing the arc of the relationship across the play -- how it buds tentatively long-distance, opens with awkward charm when they meet, flowers, and then begins to wither in Liverpool. As the unease melts into familiarity, as their characters flirt and banter and fall in love, Price and Kearney-Patch made you care deeply about Colm and Timothea.

Also important for Sea Marks is that the actors match their characters' physical types. Price was appropriately rugged and brawny for the roughhewn, cold-climate fisherman. Kearney-Patch, by contrast, had delicate features and pale coloring that made her look refined but not fragile -- perfect for Timothea, the city woman with roots as a Welsh farm girl.

At its heart, Sea Marks is Colm's story, and Price lovingly revealed all the layers of McKay's "simple" Irish fisherman. He's a man of great confidence in his own demanding environment, and Price stood proud-shouldered in Colm's dirty Aran sweater and Wellies. He also captured Colm's intelligence and inimitable Irish sense of irony with a wry smile and quizzically arched eyebrows. His faraway gaze showed that Colm also longed for something over the horizon.

Colm's confidence melts when the "44-year-old spinster-man" tries to woo Timothea in person. Price was simply hilarious in the moonlit scene, fortifying himself with swigs of home-brewed hooch as his character tries to drink his way to courage. Eventually, the confines of Liverpool sap Colm's strength, reflected in Price's subtle slump. He showed how the glint goes out of Colm's eyes, and the audience learns -- perhaps before the characters do -- that only the light of the sea will restore it.

There are layers to Timothea, too; like Price, Kearney-Patch painted a nuanced portrait of her character. Although Timothea occasionally reveals what lies beneath, she cannot change what she has become and will not go back to who she was before Liverpool. While Kearney-Patch's face softened with Timothea's love for Colm, her straight spine conveyed her character's resolute commitment to her job and her city life. The former farm girl has turned her back on the "killing roughness" of her Welsh rural origins, "where things taste good only because they're hard to come by."

Kearney-Patch matched Price's comic gifts as well. She gave the moonshine-drinking scene a Hepburn-esque screwball feel: Timothea struggles to maintain her veneer of prim dignity while getting slightly sauced and trying to seduce Colm into moving to Liverpool. When Timothea reminisces about her childhood, Kearney-Patch lapsed into a coarse Welsh lilt and sprawled comfortably on the floor -- a sharp contrast to her character's otherwise tightly controlled physical carriage.

Director Corley used Atlantic Crossing's lively music in several ways: to flesh out the story; to speed up the dramatic motion of long stretches of letter-reading; and to create an expanded sense of the characters' emotional and physical worlds. Band members Peter MacFarlane, Viveka Fox, Rick Klein and Brian Perkins became an integral part of the action, playing from on stage for much of the show.

Some of the songs were entirely new; others featured fresh lyrics set to traditional tunes. The lyrics often commented on or advanced the story line. The opening song, "The Last Lonely Bachelor of Bally Bay," established Colm as the central character, and Atlantic Crossing as the troubadours of his tale. "When Maggie and Ernie Wed" recounted the cousin's unseen wedding -- and gave the actors time to change costumes during the humorous number. "Guiding Star" was a beautiful love song that launched Colm and Timothea from the island to Liverpool.

The integration of words and music wasn't entirely smooth, however. Performers sometimes struggled to balance the volume between dialogue and instruments. These problems occurred primarily in Act I, which was frontloaded with music. According to producer Peter Boynton, alterations have been made since opening night to address these issues -- music changes to reduce competition with the actors and improve audibility of dialogue underscored with sound. The barn provided excellent acoustics overall, as well as the ideal rustic backdrop for the simple set. The farmer who built it surely never envisioned his posts and beams as a lovely proscenium arch.


One doesn't have to stretch far to find thematic echoes between the fictional Colm Primrose and the real Gardner McKay -- inadvertent renown, and a deliberate turning away from success as defined by others and towards fulfillment from something else. Fame found McKay almost accidentally from the time he was in his early twenties. Sculptor? An early work landed in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit. Photographer? His photos of the sinking Andrea Doria appeared in Life and The New York Times.

The classic "you-oughta-be-in-pictures" discovery in a Hollywood coffee shop (by then-studio executive Dominick Dunne) led to McKay's starring role in the 1959-62 TV series "Adventures in Paradise" as Captain Adam Troy, a dashing voyager across the South Pacific. His looks and charm landed him on the cover of Life magazine, and linked in the tabloids with starlets such as Ann-Margret, Julie Newmar, Suzanne Pleshette and Joan Collins. Fan mail gushed in at the rate of 5000 letters a week.

But McKay walked away from the spotlight -- including a movie role opposite Marilyn Monroe -- and into restless years of real travel and adventure in the Caribbean, South America, North Africa and France. When he returned to Los Angeles, he acted occasionally on stage, but began to write plays and drama criticism. He also raised lions, cheetahs and ocelots.

Eventually McKay married a beautiful Irish painter, had a family, and made his home in the shadow of an extinct volcano called Koko Head at the southeastern tip of Oahu. He became an avid sea kayaker, often paddling to distant Diamond Head and back. He wrote novels, as well as short stories for a program on Hawaii Public Radio, on which he read tales he'd written "about people off to one side." The program ran until just before his death, from prostate cancer, at age 69.

The poet of Koko Head penned his own epitaph. The last stanza reads: "I have sailed toward a high, steep island / Where my dreams would all come to be. / Never wanting to be done with the ocean, / Till each wave was done with me."

Sounds like something the poet of Cliffhorn Heads might have written for himself.

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Elisabeth Crean


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