‘The Wake’ travels through loss and forgiveness at Premiere Stages

By Liz Keill

UNION, NJ – In a new play by Tammy Ryan, we learn about family angst in the midst of a hurricane in Florida.

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The complicated, rambling plot involves Maggie (Kathy Rae O’Donnell) who wants to scatter her dead sister’s ashes in the ocean. She’s waiting for her older sister, Rosemary (Kathy McCafferty) to arrive with her husband Ed (Wayne Maugans.) We also meet Doyle (James Gushue) a formerly homeless man who has befriended Maggie and is now living with her.  All four deliver strong performances.

The play starts off with tension as Maggie is concerned about Rosemary’s critical nature and wants all to go well, especially with her niece and nephew coming along. But when Rosemary and Ed arrive, we learn that the teenagers are staying in Orlando’s Disney World or maybe it’s Universal Studios. It really doesn’t matter, although they, too, could be caught up in the pending hurricane.

There are a number of loose threads in this convoluted tale. Why is Doyle wearing an eye patch? It’s never explained, although he confesses to having been a convicted felon. Ed appears to be a successful accountant, but admits to Rosemary that they may need to ‘downsize.’ There are touches of political and environmental clashes, but none of it seems to go anyplace. And why aren’t the parents more concerned about their teenage children with the approaching storm?

We can sort out some of this conflict in Act I, despite the free flowing wine, beer and vodka. But Act II seems burdened with too much emotion, building to climaxes a little too abruptly. Rosemary wanders off in the storm, is deluged with sea turtles and waves and seems to have become unraveled. Ultimately, she and Maggie reach some sort of truce.

In the hands of Terrence McNally or Edward Albee, these family tensions might have built into a coherent whole. Unfortunately, Ryan’s tale is often diffused, leaving hints without explanation. The one revealing scene is Maggie’s description of their sister Colleen’s final illness. (She died of cancer after years of alcohol and cigarettes.)

Ryan’s previous plays, “Soldier’s Heart” and “”Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” were recognized and performed at Premiere Stages as well. Both seemed more focused and taut than the current production.

Director John J. Wooten has kept the pace at a high level, so there’s never a boring moment. The scenic design by Bethanie Wampof Watson is an attractive beachfront condo, with an apparently working kitchen and spacious layout. Lighting by Greg Solomon and Sound by Emily Auciello convey a real sense of a serious hurricane.

Performances continue through July 28 at Premiere Stages on the campus of Kean University in the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center in Union. For tickets, call 908-737-7469 or visit premierestagesatkean.com