If you're looking for a gentle and relaxing way to spend a few hours this weekend, there may not be a better choice than "Sea Marks," Gardner McKay's poetic and poignant love story wrapping up a successful run at Alexandria's MetroStage theater.
Whether the play is a story of love between an Irish fisherman from a remote island and a Welsh publishing house assistant from Liverpool, or a story about love between a man and the sea, is something to decide for yourself.
"Sea Marks" also provides an opportunity to enjoy the work of three trusted old hands in area theater. Nick Olcott directs, Michael Tolaydo plays Colm and Catherine Flye is Timothea, whom Colm, a 54-year-old self-described "spinster" fisherman, sees at a wedding and then pursues via letters over several years.
The two characters form a bond through the intensity and beauty of Colm's words, most of which are used to describe the sea, the third living entity in this quiet and absorbing play.
Colm doesn't just live on an island; he is an island, even if poet John Donne says no man is. He seems self-contained and satisfied with his life on the windswept crags or on his boat, so we're not quite sure why he attempts to forge a bond with Timothea, first waiting for a year after briefly spotting her.
She doesn't remember Colm but soon falls under the spell of his evocative and poetic letters, full of descriptions of the sea and life on his lonely pile of rocks. You will, too.
Listen as Colm addresses the audience at the beginning of the play and imagine his gentle Irish lilt: "I am watching the sea now. It pushes up on the beach in front of the house. It is not a pretty beach. It is made of gray stones which the sea turns black. The rain has stopped now, and the sea is gray. The sky is white, and lines of gray are being blown along further out at sea."
There's warmth in those cold, gray images, and it is curious that such comforting qualities could be distilled from such a seemingly foreboding place by a playwright usually associated with more tropical climes.
McKay, who died in November, was a man of the sea, but his time was spent mostly in the Caribbean and South Pacific. He was also most famous, to his own chagrin, for starring in the South Seas-flavored TV action series "Adventures in Paradise" from 1959 to 1962. Somewhere along the way he discovered the way the sea can fill a man emotionally even as it fills his belly and his senses.
In the first act, Colm and Timothea exchange letters, read aloud in a shifting rotation. Sometimes they articulate their own, sometimes the other's. Director Olcott generally maintains a serene pace that allows ample opportunity to savor the mood and imagery, although he knows when to let comic impulses fly, such as in the scene in which the more experienced Timothea lures the aging virgin Colm to her bed.
Tolaydo and Flye apparently have wanted to do this play for years, and their enjoyment of the characters is contagious. Tolaydo's fisherman is a bit gruff, and he speaks the words of a rough-hewn man naturally, the thoughts tumbling forth.
As Timothea, Flye gracefully makes the transition from the reserved and shy woman of the first act to the ambitious career-climber of the second, keeping both likable. The actors carefully maintain an underlying tension in their relationship. After all, opposites may attract, but how well do they bond? And Colm has a demanding mistress already, the sea.
"Sea Marks" continues through this weekend at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Showtimes are 8 p.m. tonight, tomorrow and Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 and may be reserved at 703-548-9044.