Jan Nargi, March 8, 2015

OCEANSIDE by Nick Gandiello
Merrimack Repertory Theatre

The gripping undertow of a turbulent past threatens to drown the three main characters in OCEANSIDE, a searing new play by Nick Gandiello currently in its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. Taut, terse and as unrelenting as the ocean waves that can be heard rolling in the background, the play ebbs and flows with a deceivingly gentle rhythm until a powerful tsunami all but demolishes each character’s carefully constructed new life.

Gwen (Carolyn Baeumler) is the person most vulnerable to eroding forces from her past when her rough and tumble ex-husband Tommy (Joey Collins) arrives from Brooklyn at her beachfront Long Island sanctuary with news that their 21-year-old daughter Ginnie may be missing. The more time she spends with Tommy, delving into the mystery of their daughter’s whereabouts, the harder it is for her to fight the pull of their old passions. Even though Gwen has managed to stay sane and sober under the protective influence of her upstanding new husband Kevin (Allyn Burrows), she feels that Tommy is the only one who truly knows her. Despite their flaring tempers and self-destructive drinking, she is unable to keep the swirling emotional eddies from dragging her back under.

Gandiello and director Melia Bensussen, along with a truly exceptional cast, have done remarkable work in layering each character with appealing strengths and tragic imperfections. A newly upper middle class Gwen has practically erased all physical traces of her spirited daughter from the idyllic home she now shares with Kevin in an effort to forget her own blighted youth. Tommy is a walking wound of contradictions, his naively boyish aspirations for success clashing violently with the anger and self-loathing that have been shaped by years of alcohol addiction and abuse. Kevin keeps his life in balance by focusing on the day to day. A school superintendent more comfortable with policy than with people, he approaches life with a detached logic and a practical adherence to routine.

Their disparate worlds collide as Gwen, Tommy and Kevin anxiously await news of Ginnie from the police. They argue, blame, reminisce and wallow in guilt, all the while vacillating uncontrollably between terror and denial. Tommy tries desperately to resurrect what was good in his marriage to Gwen while Kevin coolly but intently positions himself as a roadblock to keep his wife away from harm. Gwen tries to escape the pain of the inevitable by regressing into Tommy’s hazy world of perpetual intoxication. All three feebly cling to hope after sharing Easter dinner with Kevin’s high-achieving children. Surely if Jesus died for their sins there can be salvation.

Although never physically present, Ginnie is as vibrant a character as any of those actually on stage. She comes to life as Gwen, Tommy and Kevin describe her to the police. The most telling glimpse into her personality emerges, however, when one of her self-portraits is revealed. Abstract and faceless, the painting is one of a lost soul crying to be seen.

Baeumler, Collins and Burrows each deliver gut-wrenching performances. Baeumler’s Gwen descends ever moredeeply into insecurity as the soul-crushing realities of her daughter’s secret life become more disturbing and clear. Collins is a heartbreaking Tommy, a poorly educated working stiff whose dreams are bigger than his opportunities. Burrows manages to inject genuine caring into Kevin’s controlling pragmatism, suggesting that his methodical approach to life – whether in calm or in crisis – is the only way he can manage without falling apart. Supporting actors John (Allan Mayo) and Erin (Caroline Lawton) are also memorable, turning their local detectives into three-dimensional characters made human by quirks and shows of genuine sympathy. Mayo hints at real feeling beneath his inscrutable countenance with a nervous pencil tapping that belies his impersonal questioning. Lawton’s stony silence during her first encounter with Ginnie’s parents eventually melts into gentle concern once the gruesome details of the girl’s disappearance become more apparent.

In program notes Bensussen calls Gandiello’s writing unforced and organic. The same can be said of her direction and the cast’s performances. It’s hard to imagine what further work could be done to make the play more compelling. Allowing a flicker of hope to remain alive amidst unflinching despair, OCEANSIDE is profoundly moving.