The Water's Edge at AstonRep Theatre Company: Theater review
Theresa Rebeck's 2006 play brings a Greek-tragic sensibility to a contemporary domestic-drama milieu.
Theresa Rebeck's 2006 play is a modern Greek tragedy, loosely based on Aeschylus' Agamemnon. After 17 years in exile from his family for a great sin, the wealthy and poetic Richard returns unannounced to their lakeside home with his young girlfriend in tow, intent on reconciliation. Festering wounds and family secrets come to the surface as his former wife and two children come to grips with his forceful re-entry into their already troubled lives.
As it's structured on classical tragedy, there are few genuine mysteries to the play—only pieces to slowly be revealed and fall into place. But as they do, The Water’s Edge subtly builds a painful and powerful picture worthy of its heritage. Every character has sacrificed and suffered for their broken family, and now struggles to be the central player in their unfolding drama. But sacrifice means giving up all rights to decide what the past means, and every effort to justify the present with past pains endured only unravels what few gains they made. And redemption, according to The Water’s Edge, is the most selfish desire in the world, an effort to rewrite a past which cannot be altered.
Central to this theme is Richard, played by Ray Kasper. He's in no way evil or malicious, but his self-obsession and unrelenting desire for absolution make him disgusting, infuriating—and completely believable. Where Rebeck's work innovates on classical tragedies is in its grounded, gritty, and realistically flawed characters. Despite the punishing themes and violence, their conversations are almost prosaic—like any other argument between dysfunctional family members. Robert Tobin's production elevates commonplace painful exchanges to an emotional art form, as every interaction is always framed by the family’s broken history.
If a hoodie could wear scars as plainly as flesh, it would be on Sara Elizabeth Pavlak’s Erica—a notably flawless performance as the daughter of the family that represents the best of what The Water’s Edge offers. Her portrayal of the bitter and damaged girl who nevertheless clawed her way to an Ivy League education is intensely sympathetic. Erica’s intelligence only works against her, ensuring she is well aware of how her unsolvable family is destroying her life. She teeters on the brink of collapse in every second onstage, but never lets herself fall apart.
Occasionally the play imitates its Greek roots with more grandiose and cosmic moments, but this does a disservice to its strength. The ruinous family is so well-constructed the soliloquies are unnecessary; their rage needs no explanation, and the speeches prove distracting. The production’s realism only heightens the delivery of its violent and heart-pounding conclusion. But then the grittiness is replaced with pontification. As a tragedy, it is affecting, terribly beautiful, and brilliant—but catharsis, that gut feeling of a reordered world we seek from tragedy, remains elusive. Yet it’s not the ending that sticks—it’s the little moments where history conspires to make the simplest words rake across the flesh and bone of every member of the cursed house.