“A Summer Day” at the Cherry Lane Theatre

“A Summer Day” at the Cherry Lane Theatre (Closed December 8, 2012)
Written by Jon Fosse
Translated and Directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Like her spirit-sister Penelope, the Older Woman in “A Summer Day” waits patiently and anxiously for the return of her “man of the sea” Asle who left one rainy, windy autumn afternoon many years ago on his Odysseus-like epic journey of self-discovery. Jon Fosse’s “A Summer Day” chronicles one day of remembrance for this woman who years ago watched her partner in life walk away from their house on the bay, never to return.

What occurs when the key component of ones life is torn away from the fabric of the present and relegated to the complex realm of memory? In Jon Fosse’s new play, the key component is the only character with a name: Asle. The Older Woman, because she never saw Asle’s body in a coffin, spends her days expecting him to return: if no one can confirm that Asle is dead, there is a life-long chance he will walk in the door, explain where he has been “all these years” and allow life to go on as though nothing unusual ever happened. And that is exactly what Karen Allen’s “Older Woman” does day in and day out: she stands in front of the same window she watches Asle departure and waits for him to return.

From the crevices of her gray matter and all those places where memory resides, the Older Woman recalls to the stage of her recollections all those who were with her the night of Asle’s “loss:” the Older Woman in her youth (Samantha Soule); Asle (McCaleb Burnett); her friend who visited that night (Maren Bush); and her friend’s husband (Carlo Alban). The stage (kudos to designer John McDermott) becomes the gray matter itself as the Older Woman searches for some meaning in Asle’s disappearance. This ensemble, including the Older Friend (Pamela Shaw) electrifies the stage in the same way the memories zap over the synapses of the Older Woman’s brain. They deliver performances that are both breathtaking and mind-bending.

Grounded in ear-splitting silence, Karen Allen enlivens the character of the Older Woman with an ease that is eerie. As the Older Woman rehearses the autumn night Asle leaves and disappeares into the night, she re-members (literally re-builds) the characters who were with her that same night. Ms. Allen re-creates every nuance of a perpetually grieving woman who will not give up on her lover’s return from the realm of the lost.

“A Summer Day” is accessible through any of the traditional critical strategies for approaching rich text: formalist critics can relish in Mr. Fosse’s language, structure, and tone; those who lens is biographical can wonder if elements of the playwright’s life are being played out on stage; gender critics can explore the script’s feminist underpinnings or wonder whether Asle might have been gay; there is a clear mythological approach to viewing and understanding “A Summer Day” as an epic journey; and the psychological approach or lens is perhaps the most challenging.

“A Summer Day” connects to very deep places in the human psyche where memory-laden emotions, like waves, crash upon the conscious mind leaving the one remembering emptied. Is it not until sometime later that the audience member begins to sort out what subconscious and/or unconscious journey the script has initiated and this journey can be quite messy. Not only, as director Sarah Cameron Sunde writes, does “A Summer Day” counterpoint with the “complicated and messy way life is,” the play counterpoints with the complicated and messy way the human mind is.