Like private conversations that drift in the air on a beach, Ellen Melaver’s gentle breeze of a play, “Not Waving,” has a casual, intimate and random quality that slowly accumulates interest as the mundane chat turns significant. If the end result is less than a tempest, the writing, performances and helming in the Williamstown Theater Festival world preem still add up to an engaging contemporary character study of people searching for their own safe haven. Future productions are likely for this intimate exchange of personal coastal disturbances.
Three couples arrive on a beach that was the site of an accidental drowning the previous summer. An abandoned lifeguard tower looms in David Korins’ sweeping sandy set, acting as a constant reminder that bad things can happen even under the sunniest circumstances. The feeling of random loss pervades the air as each pair examines their own relationships, at first through casual, comic conversation, then later under more weighted talk.
There is stylish, sardonic mother Patsy (Harriet Harris) and her aloof and uptight 32-year-old son Peter (Dashiell Eaves); a 30ish married couple (Maria Dizzia, Nate Corddry) seeking a vacation escape from the pain of shared loss; and an awkward juvenile, Bo (Will Rogers), who tries to impress his more experienced girlfriend Cara (Sarah Steele) while hiding his own insecurities, vulnerabilities and shame.
Via verbal volleys and rispostes, each separate pairing little by little reveals their back stories and present predicaments. At the heart of each duo’s relationship are questions of trust and empathy amid fears of the unknown that have stunted, immobilized or numbed the characters. Though the couples never interact on stage, their stories cross-cut thematically and dramatically, allowing the audience to make its own connections.
Harris brings a sharpness as well as sensitivity to the opinionated mother trying to connect with her son, balancing the character’s forcefulness and smartness while also tapping into the heartbreak of a parent who feels a stranger to her child. Eaves plays the standoffish son with the right sense of cool, caution and annoyance. “I don’t have any bliss to follow,” he says matter-of-factly when his mother probes too personally. “I’m blissless. And unyearning. I like it that way.”
Dizzia and Corddry have the playful rhythm of a couple that has nicely and lovingly accommodated each other’s separate sensibilities. When their separate personal pain is revealed, it becomes clear the couple don’t know each other as well as they think.
The weakest narrative of the three is the teens’ story. For much of the time, the couple engage in lighthearted, clumsy date talk. While Bo demonstrates some intriguing quirks — and, in the end, shows there are some shadings to his past, there’s little subtext to Cara’s character.
The lightness of touch shown in the perfs and Carolyn Cantor’s direction avoids banging scribe’s metaphoric gong too loudly: of waves, undertows, drowning and learning to swim. Several important narrative details are also slipped in a bit too fleetingly to register — or remain unexplored. But Melaver and Cantor understand that little daily details in life — a mother’s queries about a son’s breakfast, a husband’s worry about lightning striking twice, a boy’s obsession with an epic sand creation — can add up to more than a simple day at the beach.