The New York Times

Review: In ‘A Day by the Sea,’ Words Unsaid or Said Quite Bluntly

Aug. 25, 2016

There’s so much to like about the Mint Theater Company’s revisiting of “A Day by the Sea” that it’s hard to know what to single out for first-paragraph attention. Let’s go with this: Even secondary characters in this 1953 play by N. C. Hunter are given the chance to make an impression, and in this production they do.

The play presents us two days in the lives of an English family in coastal Dorset, where Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), a 65-year-old widow, is having a visit from her 40-year-old son, Julian (Julian Elfer). Also returning to the homestead is Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), who was raised by the Ansons after she was orphaned but has been not been back to Dorset in years. She brings to the reunion two children and a romantic history full of pain, loss and scandal.

The overall portrait is of an economically comfortable family in an anxious age, the postwar years when Europe was still shellshocked from two world wars and England’s leisure class was feeling unmoored. Within this big picture are personal stories, ones of frustration, longing and missed opportunity. A program note tells us that Hunter was sometimes accused of mimicking Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why. But imitative or not, this is a very well made play, and Austin Pendleton, the director, gets the most out of it.

Julian is the main focus, a man consumed with global issues and impatient with his mother for her seeming uninterest in them. He’s a workaholic, though on this eventful visit home he comes to realize that all that effort has made little difference in solving the problems of the day or in advancing his career. Mr. Elfer is terrific, and so is Ms. Firth, whose Frances gradually emerges during this two-intermission play as the most complex character on the stage.

Their pas de deux is a beautiful study in conversations never had, or had too late. (How the 1955 Broadway production of this play ran only a few weeks, despite Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the roles, is a mystery.) But Hunter gave just about everyone in his story something substantive: old Uncle David (George Morfogen), who may or may not be taking in everything that’s going on around him; the liquor-loving doctor (Philip Goodwin), who helps with David’s care; the dowdy Miss Mathieson (Polly McKie), governess to Frances’s children.

Miss Mathieson isn’t around much, but what Ms. McKie does with her one big scene, a confessional moment of yearning, is heart-stopping. And it underscores that Hunter was not interested in simplicities. Frances and Julian didn’t say enough to each other at a crucial time in their lives, and it may have cost them happiness. Miss Mathieson, in contrast, is as blunt and honest as can be, but is she rewarded for her openness? In Hunter’s complex postwar world, apparently not.