In Tammy Ryan’s memory play “Tar Beach,” the title refers quite literally to the roof over the heads of 14-year-old Reenie and 16-year-old Mary Claire, growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Queens in 1977.
During a New York City heat wave, and without enough money for train fare to the ocean, the roof of a building can, with a little imagination, become a beach: Just spread out a couple of towels, slather on some baby oil, grab some snacks and pump up the portable radio. It sure beats hanging out indoors below with no air conditioning.
Yet for all the sunlight beating down on that hot and sticky roof, this show takes us to some dark places.
This is semi-autobiographical fare (“None of it happened, but all of it is true,” Ryan says), and there’s a specificity to the time, setting and tenor of the material that adds to the play’s theatrical oomph. While the play has some weaknesses in terms of the writing, and there is some uneven acting, the current production at Fresno State has a lot to recommend it.
Mary Claire (Emily Kearns) is something of a wild child, and she and her best friend, Mary Frances (Lia Christine Dewey), have plans to get out of the house by enacting a time-honored teenage plot: Tell your parents you’re spending the night at a friend’s, then order up a night of sex, drinking and rock ’n’ roll. Mary Claire’s father, Roger (Jacob Sherwood, deftly playing an older character) is suspicious, although her surly mother, Brigit (Cecily Callahan), doesn’t much seem to care. In order to get permission for her wild night, Mary Claire agrees to take her younger sister, Reenie, with her.
Adding to the father’s nervousness is the fact that the Son of Sam, the famous serial killer who terrorized New York City in the 1970s, is still loose. While he isn’t a character in the play, he lingers on its periphery, a metaphor for the dangers of the real world.
Director J. Daniel Herring, working with a solid scenic design by Jeff Hunter, divides up the play’s series of short scenes into a series of crisply delineated interludes, using a technique of “freeze and flash” to approximate the taking of a snapshot photograph. (Childhood memories in the form of photos, albums and saved school projects play an important role in the script.) As a technique, the freezes felt a little overwhelming and gimmicky after a while (there are actually two flashes for each scene change).
But in other ways, the direction is quite effective in ratcheting up the tension of the play, particularly when another historical moment intervenes: the great New York City blackout. (Kyle W. Jensen’s expansive and thrilling sound design and Liz Waldman’s lighting design immerse us in the ensuing chaos, and Jana Price’s period costumes bring back memories of their own.)
Kindle Lynn Cowger, a gifted musical theater actor, expands her range in this production with a measured and impressive performance as Reenie, who as narrator guides us through an angst-ridden recollection. (The play contains mature content and sexual themes.) Kearns and Dewey are strong and confident as the sassy 16-year-olds, with Kearns impressively taking her character on a full emotional journey.
In terms of the play itself, the parents are a weak link in terms of their relationship and characterizations. Their reaction to the calamitous event that overwhelms Reenie is hard to fathom, even for distracted and disillusioned parents. And a key monologue for the mother in a moment of crisis seems overly crafted and doesn’t ring true.
Mostly, I found myself feeling overwhelmed by the unrelenting anger in terms of the family dysfunction on display. I never was able to rise above that as an audience member.
Still, “Tar Beach” is often compelling. This version is only the second time it’s been produced after a 2015 New Jersey premiere, and it’s a great learning experience for student actors to thrash about in a play that might still be having growing pains. In terms of subject matter, the play is no day at the beach – but it captures the notion that with nostalgia can also come pain.
- Through Saturday
- Woods Theatre, Fresno State
- www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts, 559-278-2216
- $17, $10 students