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A CurtainUp Review
A Summer Day

Are you really going to stand there looking out the window
Don't you ever get tired of it
Whenever I think about you
I've got to say
I see you in front of that window
looking down towards the water

— The Older Friend
Summer Day
Karen Allen
(Photo credit: Sandra Coudert)
I was a bit startled to read in the program that John Fosse is considered one of the worlds finest contemporary playwrights, as I'd never heard of him before. I'm a little closer to understanding this pronouncement after experiencing the bracingly haunting, if also pretentiously spare A Summer Day. . .

Although this one-act play is set in an isolated old house overlooking the water “somewhere,” there is no indication or inference that it is in Norway, except that its director Sarah Cameron Sunde’s translation occasionally betrays the Nordic origins of the text. There is no betrayal, however, of the melancholy tone and meticulously tempered lyricism that empowers Fosse’s ode to sorrow, as it is experienced by an older woman (a poignantly reflective performance by Karen Allen) as she looks back on an ill-fated summer day. Standing misty-eyed at the window of the home that she has chosen to remain in since the disappearance of her husband Asle (McCaleb Burnett) many years before, it appears that the occasional visits by her long-time friend (Pamela Shaw) have not appreciably changed her resolve to re-live the day of his disappearance again and again in her mind.

The play moves gracefully back in time, as The Older Woman becomes a witness to the past often in close proximity to her younger self played by Samantha Soule. The past includes the younger friend, played by Maren Bush and her husband, played by Carlo Albán. Although The Older Woman can vividly recall the early romantic days of her marriage to good-looking, sea-loving Asle as well as their joint decision to leave the big city for a more remote life, she has become obsessed by certain conversations with him that might be clues to indicate his general unhappiness, something that she can see and detect in his actions, but of which he appears to be in denial.

“Anxious” when he isn’t going “out on the water” is how she sees him, even during their playfully romantic moments. “I’ve never liked the water,” she admits to him on more than one occasion, even as he also admits to not understanding himself or why he is lured with an increasing urgency to be less at home and more on the water. Although she pleads with him (“Try to be happy”) not to run away when her friends visits, she cannot seem to change his need to be a loner.

What is most remarkable and hypnotic about the play is not that it considers how The Older Woman has chosen to mourn and cling to memories, but how methodically and intricately she weaves and spins the details of what she presumes to remember. The outcome may be inevitable, but in realigning and reassessing them through repetition, she appears to be seeking as well as achieving a deepening understanding of the specific conversations and events that led up to his disappearance.

If there is a presiding minimalism in the text, it is most apparent in the conversations between The Older and Young women and The Younger Woman and Asle, most of them structured to go in circles, but are never exactly repetitious, but always self-consciously reiterating the same points. What we are privy to is her mind replaying the past in malleable fragments. I was reminded of the French director Jacques Rivette and how in his stunning film Celine and Julie Go Boating, the past and the present are seen as a mysterious puzzle in which the pieces that make it complete are found by the protagonists only after they find themselves repeating and re-examining every step they have taken.

Allen, a multi-talented and faceted actor with many outstanding film and stage appearances, does what fine actors do, be in the moment and own every moment whether she is a shadowy hovering presence in her character’s past or a wife haunted by the prospect of a reality that is yet to be fulfilled. Samantha Soule is excellent as the Young Woman whose disquieting anxieties cannot be concealed even when in the arms of her husband. I was impressed by how tellingly Shaw and Bush, as the respectively Older and Younger Friend defined a single character. Burnett is splendid as the conflicted, literally and figuratively lost-at-sea Asle. Albán finds a comedic edge to his small but effective role of the empathetic friend’s husband.

Costume designer Deb O adds a nice touch by having both Allen and Soule in the same flowery print dresses. John McDermott’s simple but striking impressionistic set design composed of wooden planks and a curved back wall allows the lighting designer Nicole Pearce an ideal place for the atmospheric visuals of the rough sea and the waves. In keeping with the mood of the piece, there is a very effective but subtle sound-scape, the work of Leah Gelpe.

Fosse, a poet–novelist turned playwright, is credited in his homeland and throughout Europe for picking up the mantle of Henryk Ibsen, the father of modern drama. In America, those familiar with his rarely done plays consider his post-modernist style closer to the avant guard-ism of Beckett. There is no indication to me in the tenderly nuanced A Summer Day, and in the light of the splendid performances under Sunde’s incisive direction, that this play is in danger of being seen as anything more than an uncommonly lyrical and forthright look at the long term echoes of bereavement.

Since A Summer Day is something of an anomaly as a selection for the usually more graphic, earthy plays produced by the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It was therefore wise to chosen the comfortable, intimate Cherry Lane Theater for this American premiere of this play thal premiere in 1999 at Det Norske Theater in Oslo. For a previous Fosse play in this country see Curtaiup's review of Night Sings Its Songs.

A Summer Day By Jon Fosse
Directed and Translated by Sarah Cameron Sunde

Cast: Karen Allen (Older Woman), Pamela Shaw (Older Friend), Samantha Soule (Younger Woman), McCaleb Burnett (Asle), Maren Bush (Younger Friend), Caro Albán (The Man)
Set Design: John McDermott
Costume Design: Deb O
Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce
Sound Design: Leah Gelpe
Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes no intermission
Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street
(212) 989 - 2020
Tickets: $76.00
Performances: Tuesday through Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM and 8 PM; Sunday at 3 PM.
From: 10/10/12 Opened 10/25/12 Ends 11/25/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/23/12
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