It’s July 12, 1977 and Reenie’s life is about to change. Not in any way she could imagine, but what happens to her is something from which she can never return. This is just the beginning of Tammy Ryan’s “Tar Beach,” now at Luna Stage, in West Orange, and anyone who was alive in the Summer of 1977 is about to take a sometimes pleasant, often bumpy stroll down Memory Lane.
Emmanuelle Nadeau is Reenie, utterly believable as a 14-year-old young woman, as her real-life role is high school sophomore. Very difficult to believe, as Reenie spins out her tale, asking us to consider it a dream and to stay with her in the story, as this is the only way she can tell it. Tammy Ryan has placed your compassion, your heart, in Reenie’s teen hands and your 1977 will all come rushing back to you as Reenie is showing you her version.
We’re in Ozone Park, Queens. Reenie takes us into her memory, into the house where she grew up. Her older sister Mary Claire (Emily Verla) and her bestie Mary Frances (Alanna Monte) are up on “Tar Beach,” sunning themselves on the roof and planning an evening that no one will ever forget, but for different reasons than they imagine. Millions of lives are flowing along in New York City, blissfully unaware of the summer lightning about to strike and cause a ConEd blackout of epic proportions. We’re looking back, we can see the sand running through a million hour glasses, all converging on a moment where Reenie’s experience, and that of many other people with her, will reach a flash point. Will it ever be possible for her to return?
Heather Benton and Bart Shatto are Brigit and Roger, Reenie and Mary Claire’s parents. When we’re children, we only see our parents through the filter of our needs and desires. When we become teens, we come face to face with the realization that, not only are our parents not perfect, our parents are flawed in some very serious ways. A very loving father, who is enslaved to weekend alcoholic binges, but loves his daughters more than his own life, is sucking the life out of a mother who doesn’t know how to love her children, nor does she have the strength. Mythology runs like a bloody river through the plot and the imaginations of the three young women, but while Roger is playing Bacchus, Brigit is Atlas holding up the world. Brigit is also a goddess in Irish mythology, who is often portrayed as three sisters, each responsible for creating and maintaining an aspect of society. That’s a lot on one woman’s shoulders.
Tammy Ryan’s dialogue is rapid fire and she seems to have tapped into the ghosts of family arguments everywhere–parenting, money, struggle–and this tight ensemble takes her words and gives them fire and breath and life. Brigit and Roger’s arguments are bitter and wrenching. Mary Claire and Mary Frances’ burbling adolescent effervescence is in stark contrast to Reenie’s introspective reticence. This is a big, thick slice of life that is fiction and non-fiction, experience and observation, life and love and struggle, and you need to see it.
This world premiere production is even more arresting for the intimacy of the theater at Luna Stage, in West Orange, New Jersey. You are close to the action wherever you are and among the most haunting scenes is the one in total darkness. Go with people you love.
“Tar Beach” is only playing through May 9, so give a lasting gift to friends and family. Visit www.LunaStage.or
g for tickets and more information.