Saturday, November 10, 2001

“We tell stories in Shetland.” It’s a line repeated more than once in Signature Theatre’s American premiere of Grace Barnes’ “Zander’s Boat.”
The production itself is all about storytelling, as three women recount their hopes and regrets with no real interaction among them. Their narratives are vivid, their words gorgeous. Yet with little in the way of action, “Zander’s Boat” eventually is swamped in a static sea.
The three women live on Shetland, a bleak and remote Scottish island. Each is in a different stage of life, but all wrestle with universal experiences of isolation, longing and fulfillment.
Edith (Linda High) is an older woman reflecting on the loss of her grown son. She’s sometimes sentimental and sometimes embittered about Zander (short for Alexander), her only boy. She also reflects on motherhood itself that special joy of being needed, absolutely, by someone else.
That devotion changes, Edith laments, when the child becomes his own person a person the mother doesn’t necessarily like.
Edith is angry and guilt-ridden. She eulogizes the boy who danced with her on the beach and built a boat of shells, rocks and pieces of wood, offering to take people anywhere they dreamed of going.
Edith also ridicules him for his dream of becoming a photographer and for flunking out of a university. She crushes his dreams the way only a mother could, a mother who couldn’t abide being needed no longer. With her son gone, she’s left to rage at the sea where he drowned himself.
Marie (Amy McWilliams) has been in a safe marriage for five years, having gone into it knowing she didn’t love her husband.
She has, however, known what it’s like to feel consuming love and she is too scared to try to sustain it. Will she be old by the time she reaches out for what is meant to be hers? Marie wonders. Fear governs her life: The fear of being alone led to her marriage; the fear of letting go keeps her from finding love.
People ask her when she and her husband are going to have children, but she says she’s not interested. She chafes at the notion of the “maternal instinct” and the questioning that women who would rather be childless are expected to endure.
Miss McWilliams gives a strong performance as a woman suffocating in the life for which she has settled and the small place in which she lives.
The most compelling of the three stories is that told by Sylvia (Colleen Delany), a young wife whose difficulty conceiving strains her marriage.
Sylvia always imagined herself as someone’s wife and marries her boyfriend, Paul, after he graduates from college.
He’s a callow guy who blames her for their trouble even though, as she discovers, he knows it’s his fault. He tells her he married her not because he loved her, but because he thought she would be a good mother for his sons.
Miss Delany gives Sylvia a gentle, wounded longing. Her mother died when she was a girl, and she searches for something in the myths of Shetland. The solace Sylvia finds in the Roman Catholic Church and in the belief that the Virgin Mary will answer her prayers give her a hopefulness Edith and Marie lack, as though her heartbreaks haven’t yet hardened her against the world.
The women talk of the place they go when they close their eyes and dream of more.
Eric Grims’ set design shows a barren coast, and its size captures the uncomfortable closeness of the community. Panels painted with abstract images hang in the back and may be what the women see in their dreams.
Miss Barnes who also directed has created moments of genuine poetry. Sylvia describes the vacation when she and her husband danced for the first time in ages; Marie talks of her mother watching the boat carrying her daughter back to college disappear from sight; Edith reminisces about her son’s mystical boat.
The women’s stories unfold, but with no interaction among the three, they are left shadowboxing with the philandering husband, the desperate son, the mourned lover who are elsewhere, offstage.
It makes for gripping storytelling, but limited drama. The play can’t sustain the weight of so many weighty words beautiful and evocative as they are.

* * 1/2
WHAT: “Zander’s Boat”
Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington
8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 9. No performance Thanksgiving, but an additional performance Nov. 19.
TICKETS: $24 to $30

PHONE: 800/955-5566 or 703/218-6500

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