Leapin' Lizards

Albee's Seascape brings humans face to face with their reptilian cousins

Edward Albee's Seascape is, like most of his plays, all talk and almost no action. But what talk it is. The play, an extraordinary blend of light humor and philosophical profundity, features only four characters -- an older couple entering their allegedly golden years and a younger couple of talking lizards embarking on their own journey. It's not nearly as weird as it sounds.

The play, showing at Palm Beach Dramaworks, in 1975 won Albee his second of three Pulitzer Prizes, though it is not as well-known as his sensational riff on American marriage, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). It's about evolution or, more simply, the inevitability of change, as both couples struggle with what their futures hold. The older couple, Nancy (Joanna Olsen) and Charlie (John Felix), are entering the phase of their lives in which they have no responsibilities other than to themselves. The lizards have chosen to leave the familiar sea and explore land because they have evolved in a more Darwinian sense. Both couples are equally afraid of what will happen next.

Seascape opens with Nancy and Charlie enjoying a languid day at an unidentified beach. They fall into heated patter about where and how, or even if, their lives should continue. The couple has grown children, they have grandchildren, and they no longer need to work. Charlie maintains that he's given Nancy a comfortable life and has earned a rest. Nancy vehemently counters that they've earned a little life rather than a one-way ticket to a "retirement farm." Felix and Olsen skillfully use the heated dialogue to convey both the couple's momentary anger and their longstanding affection for each other. Only Albee could manage to make bickering so compelling.

McKeever and Lowe: They reach across the species divide.
McKeever and Lowe: They reach across the species divide.

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Presented through April 3.
Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach, 561-514-4042.

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Through their probing conversation, the couple learn new things about each other, even though they have been together for what appears to have been a few decades. Charlie learns that Nancy thought of cheating on him while he was in a depression that lasted several months. Nancy learns that Charlie, as a boy, dreamed of being a fish that would sink down below the water and sit among the lichen and ferns. The vivacious Nancy forcefully presses her husband to revive the dream, resulting in one of those swift marital blow-ups that can be followed only by a tense silence.

During the lull, Leslie (Michael McKeever) and Sarah (Margery Lowe), the two talking lizards, amble onto the scene. McKeever and Lowe jump and twist their heads as much as they talk. They sidewind and scamper like lizards but with the grace and elegance of humans. Their actions and expressions make up for their lack of vocabulary. Erin Amico's striking costuming for the lizards evokes the textured skin of a reptile but gives them a simultaneously lizard-like and humanoid appearance under the cover of beautifully wrought green felt scales.

After some fearful circling, the lizards begin to pepper the human couple with questions about human life on land, though they're not even sure what the words human or land are. Nancy teaches the lizards how to shake hands -- or, if one is a lizard, forelegs -- cleverly introducing them to human rituals. The lizards' questions are answered in a brilliant mix of frustration, compassion, and lyricism as the human couple, suddenly absorbed in crossing the species divide, tries to explain emotion and intellect. Sarah and Leslie reveal the reason they left their home -- because, as lovely and as interesting as it was, it no longer had enough room for the evolving lizards.

The foursome's attention to the big questions inevitably leads to the biggest of all: What happens at the end? Charlie's crushing description of death not only makes Sarah cry but makes Leslie violently attack him. The line between human and animal, evolved and basic, blurs.

Seascape, actually one of Albee's lighter pieces, is a large, complicated play that is powerful in the hands of the company and its director, William Hayes. The minimalist, boulder-strewn set, designed by Michael Amico, and the dappled lighting, designed by John Hall, are simple and unchanging, all the better to highlight the play's complexity. The tight space puts the audience almost on stage, which is not a bad thing. The intimacy makes it impossible to ignore Albee's words, and then they stay in the mind for days.

 
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