Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
There is a brooding sadness inherent in and hovering over the love story of Liverpudlian Timothea Stiles (Xanthe Elbrick) and Cliffhorn Heads fisherman Colm Primrose (Patrick Fitzgerald). Gardner McKay’s mesmeric “Sea Marks” echoes the deep sadness of James Joyce and the disputatious anger of Martin McDonagh and, blended with his own unique storytelling style, creates a beautiful tale of love and loss, regret and redemption. “Sea Marks” is not a traditional love story with a happy ending; rather it is a story about what motivates people to do the risky things they do to find happiness or the surcease of loneliness.
Remembering the “pretty girl” he met at a wedding “two winters ago,” Colm sends “Miss Stiles” a letter just to see if she might remember him. The pretty girl Timothea does not remember Colm but they commence on a furious correspondence which transitions from the formal to the affectionate to the romantic. Colm eventually leaves his partner “called the MacAfee” and their fishing boat behind to visit Timothea in Liverpool where she works for the publisher Mr. Blackstone. Colm is head over heels in love with Timothea; in fact, he in infatuated with the idea of her.
Colm’s letters to Timothea are sheer poetry brimming with deep human feeling and constructed with imagery, figurative language and a treasure trove of tropes any poet would die for! Before he visits, Timothea shares with Colm that, “Mr. Blackstone says there’s not many can coax meaning out of words the way you do.” That seems to be a compliment. In fact, it is the foreshadowing of disaster.
Motivation is the key to understanding the love song of Welsh Timothea and Irish Colm. Although it appears on the surface that, through Colm’s letters Timothea develops the same kind of fancy for Colm as Colm has for her, Timothea’s motivation for developing her relationship with Colm is more about publishing than permanency. Before Colm’s arrival, Timothea has set in motion a publishing marketing campaign that will rattle Colm’s weltanschauung to its very core.
All Colm wants to do is please Tomothea. His motives are pure, clean, and primitive – all he desires is as poet and lover to coax the meaning out of their relationship. When all he experiences is the marketing campaign for the book of poems Timothea garnered from his private letters and published without his permission, Colm begins to yearn for the Heads and his partner the MacAfee. The publisher titles Colm’s book of poetry “Sea Sonnets.” Colm would have preferred “Sea Marks” paying homage to “those lines that the highest reach of the tide leaves on the land to remind you that it’ll be back.”
Patrick Fitzgerald’s Colm (meaning ‘dove’) is perfectly “primitive” in the sense of ‘essential, indispensible, fundamental, and pristine.” Mr, Fitzgerald gives his Colm the ideal blend of seasoned gritty fisherman and naïve schoolboy. His performance is flawless and freckled with highlights of brilliance. Colm just wants to – as playwright McKay offers – “hold his way of life,” something Timothea does not understand and fails to respect.
Xanthe Elbrick’s Timothea (meaning ‘God-fearing’) is paramour on the outside and Venus Fly Trap just beneath the endearing surface. Ms. Elbrick makes clear that Timothea’s love is as much authentic romance as it is an interest in his sexual naiveté and the publishing possibilities Colm’s writing proffers. Her performance is at once charming as it is calculating and brims with alarming sincerity.
Charlie Corcoran’s scenic design is serviceable and engaging. Michael Gottlieb’s lighting bathes the Heads and Liverpool with appropriate mystery and urban distraction. And Ciarán O’Reilly’s direction is fluid, meticulous, and supportive of the craft of the ensemble cast.
Eventually Colm returns to Cliffhorn Heads to complete a season of fishing. The play ends the same way it begins: Colm writing to Timothea and Timothea beginning to respond. The salutations – “Dear Love” and “My dearest Colm” – seem to prophesy a felicitous reunion. Between the lines, however, is the possibility they both know things will never be the same between them. The “sea marks” of their visit in Liverpool foreshadow difficulty for a true love connection and remind both “lovers” the tides of remorse will return. This final offering in Irish Repertory’s current season is a must see and will not disappoint.