In its world premiere at South Coast Rep, Lucinda Coxon’s “Nostalgia” is infused with earth and water, thanks to an attractive and creative set design, but lacks the fire to stoke its dramatic lyricism. An exploration of human yearnings — for love, meaning, forgiveness — the play gets weighed down by the burden of its themes.
Set in South Wales in 1919, “Nostalgia” depicts a time when science and superstition were, supposedly, melding. “Sherlock Holmes” author Arthur Conan Doyle (Larry Drake), an advocate of the Spiritualist belief that one could communicate with the dead, comes to this remote community to meet with a man who claims to have made contact with the author’s son, who died in WWI.
In Coxon’s crafty setup, this potential medium, Will (Michael James Reed), is actually a skeptic of the afterlife, confused by his experience with a local psychic and highly uncertain that he can be of use to the famous author. Will’s father has died relatively recently, leaving him in charge of the family farm and of his alcoholic brother Tom (Daniel Blinkoff), whom he hopes to marry off and see settled down.
The other player in this drama is Buddug (Susannah Schulman), a mysterious woman who lives across a lake from the village, the traditionally outcast home of the Sin Eater, who, according to local legend, eats the sins of the dead.
In Myunghee Cho’s set, the body of water that separates Buddug is represented by a square pool surrounded by the dirt that comprises the playing space. A platform amid the square represents the raft that Tom, who’s in love with Buddug, constantly tries to convince her to send out to him so he can get across. Alex Jaeger’s costumes are all earth tones, while Christopher Webb’s evocative sound design gives us a strong sense of the water.
The revelations, often highly foreshadowed, advance a fragile narrative, but one that never quite deepens its themes or unifies its few threads of plot. Coxon’s writing has a strong sense of compassion in it — all the characters are sympathetic, even when they’re at odds — but that doesn’t necessarily make for drama.
Under Juliette Carrillo’s direction, the production captures the poetic qualities of the play, but with something of a heavy hand. The actors struggle with the Welsh accents and seem to be searching for more than the vague sentimentality the play is providing them. The title remains a non sequitur.