By Hal Corley, directed by Mark Fleischer
Adirondack Theatre Festival, Through July 17
Brush the Summer By, the current offering at Adirondack Theater Festival, sounds like it should make for a pleasant theatrical soak in the Adirondack Sun. Set in Lake Placid, the script (workshopped by ATF last season) draws its title from an Emily Dickinson poem, is penned by five-time Emmy Award- winning writer Hal Corley, and follows an encounter between a conservative divorcee on a leaf peeping drip from Maryland and a free-spirited bartender. Breezy summer fare. But from the moment the lights come up on said bartender sunbathing nude in the woods, the play stomps without subtlety towards its contrived end. The experience feels more like staring directly into the sun than basking in its glow.
Nearly all of the fault lies in Corley’s hackneyed script, which is devoid, even in its most tender moments, of the nuance, subtext and complexity of the intimate dialogue necessary to drive a two-hander. He panders to a regional audience, awkwardly inserting a string of jarring local references, but fails to create genuine human detail in his characters or story. Corley’s experience and awards come from daytime serial writing, and while the caricatures and gasp-weep-repeat formula of soap operas may be a welcome lunch-break respite for many, it doesn’t translate to stage.
As Ellen, Suzanna Hay eeks every ounce of heart possible out of the vacant script. She manages to spin some lovely moments from thin air, and flashes deftly between schoolgirl, siren and grandmother. Her performance is doubly impressive considering how little she gets in return from Kevin Kelly, who fumbled lines during his self-aware performance and brought little internal fire to help illuminate the vaguely written character.
David Esler’s multi-tiered set is packed with birches, torn strips of canvas evoking reeds and rushes, and a large A-frame and birch-bordered scrim at center, which served, except in a brief wordless moment, as a screen for scene-setting projections by Richard DiBella. The set manages to look busy, without ever creating a real sense of place or atmosphere, and the projections—scenic photos of the Adirondacks and hotel interiors, interspersed with stock animations—are a gratingly literal backdrop for the inelegant scenes.
A quick skim through the provided script, however, reveals that Corley’s heavy-handed stage directions (respected for the premiere production) left little to the imagination, even for the designers. He includes a parenthetical slide show of between-scene images, and burdens Esler and director Mark Fleischer with a nearly impossible number of locations for the quick-scened, intermissionless play.
Fleischer has done his best to create Corley’s world on stage, but the action is often stagnant or unnatural, the characters are broad and ill-defined and the plot, even after a dramatic twist in the latter half, predictable and preachy. The production comes as a particular disappointment after Fleischer’s evocative, understated and poetic work on last year’s Ordinary Days. His largest mistake, as ATF’s Producing Artistic Director, was in selecting Brush the Summer By for the festival’s stage.