On the Shore of the Wide World, first staged in Manchester and London in 2005, is the first Atlantic Theater Company show of the 2017-18 season. with American actors edging into various regional accents and a British reserve. Playwright Simon Stephens, who has been embraced by Broadway audiences in recent years for his Tony-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s sensory-overload of an adolescent novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and his two-hander Heisenberg, here tells a sprawling family story that’s less a careful examination of any character’s experience as a wash of themes, romances and challenges from a soap opera..
Sudsy plot points drive a narrative involving three generations of the working-class Holmes family in rural England, including pregnancies, abortions, births, early marriages, threatened dalliances, and an event that the audience should experience as a surprise, so no spoilers here. Grandparents Charlie (Peter Maloney) and Ellen (Blair Brown) are testy and a bit annoyed at growing old. Middle-aged son Peter (CJ Wilson) and wife Alice (Mary McCann) are weary parents of teen sons Alex (Ben Rosenfield) and Christopher (Wesley Zurick). Charlie and Ellen are afraid of the future and he might be abusive; Peter and Alice have grown estranged and are tempted to stray; Alex and Christopher find adventures and dangers — and one of them finds a girlfriend in Sarah (Tedra Millan).
With perhaps too many characters and storylines by half, despite some solid performances from the ensemble, the play takes so much time with characters and plot points that it moves at a glacial speed. Events that might offer immediate, engaging dramatic action — a move to a new city; the ending of a friendship; that aforementioned spoiler — are primarily reported after the fact, as if happening during a commercial break, rather than living before us. We’re left with middle-aged women recalling the reproductive decisions of their youth, an old man grappling with a life-threatening event, and young people discovering sex. While there are many possibilities for fulsome stories here, only “life is hard and then you die” seems fleshed out.
Director Neil Pepe keeps most of this slow-moving action at the periphery of Scott Pask’s raked set for most of the play. Is he perhaps suggesting visually that the characters are living at the edges of their lives? Doors, loft overhangs, broken windows and exposed brick surfaces define this world. It’s an uncomfortable jumble of the very literal (those broken windows) along with the surfaces that Peter refinishes for a well-to-do, very pregnant client named Susan (a sparkling Amelia Workman). For the first two hours of the show, no space is fully furnished, leaving us constantly feeling incomplete, off-kilter (there’s that raked stage) and stuffing our imaginations into the corners of the stage. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting keeps most portions of the hodgepodge set illuminated, so we’re never fully in any one space or another.
During the final half-hour of the play, a family dinner takes centerstage, again reinforcing how much action has occurred at the periphery, delivered as reminiscences in monotone or else sotto voce. The explosive Act 2 family dinner scene in August: Osage County occurred to me in this moment, although here a calm beginning yields to a calamitous, yet somehow muted explosion.
Deep in Act 2 of On the Shore of the Wide World, John Keats’ poem “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” is referenced with the phrase that gives the play its title. The narrator of the poem outlines the possible life experiences he might not have with his beloved; he concludes that “on the shore of the wide world I stand alone.” These characters are solitary humans finding their way in the world and ultimately, some of them, bit by bit, find their way to each other. A family story, burdened with extra details, finally edges into something that occasionally moves.