The story itself isn’t new – the American companies whose operations result in toxic waste quite often deal with that waste in irresponsible “cost-saving” ways, choosing to protect their profit margins at the expense of the lives of working class folk desperate for jobs. American companies do it to this day; hell, one of them is probably doing it right now, thanks to the current administration and its determination to deregulate every polluter from coast to coast. What is fresh about this unfortunately very timely play is that we put the spotlight on the emotional fallout from dealing with chronic illness.
Billy (Vincent Sagona) is trying to hold it together, living in a trailer with high school sweetheart Ellie (Annie McGovern), despite his physical weakness, disability, and, as we learn later, infertility caused by radiation exposure. The life that Ellie imagined they would have together was never even on the table, and Billy is not best pleased when co-worker and old friend Jack (Brian Richardson) appears on his doorstep looking to dredge up the past. It was Billy who suggested the summer job that ruined both their lives, and Billy who seems most invested in pretending that nothing can be done about it. Jack, on the other hand, is on fire, writing a book, appearing on talk shows, and using what’s left of his time on earth to try and achieve a payday for the remaining members of his extended family.
Facing the truth about our lives, such as they are, isn’t something that any of us are terrifically good at, but in Soundview Summer we see the guilt-wracked Billy submerged in denial. Jack picks at Billy like a crow, trying to cajole him into taking up the “cause” that Billy seems to want to ignore completely. But the truth will out, and the festering of these buried emotions damages Billy’s marriage in just the way radiation is damaging his body.
Sagona’s portrayal of Billy is touching and sympathetic; Richardson is a force of nature as the righteous, brave Jack. Sharon Hope is radiant as Jack’s loving and practical Aunt Jessie. Annie McGovern as Ellie is enchanting, and the play is given a particularly vibrant shot when Susan Barrett appears to play Cathy, a tough-talking single mother that takes up with poor Billy after Ellie makes her escape into the arms of, ironically, a doctor. Barrett understands beautifully that her character is largely comic relief, but slips into, and out of, the emotional landscape with subtlety and grace. Veteran actor Stuard Rudin is great fun to watch as Cathy’s barman brother Joe, and Gregory Erbach lends just the right amount of desperation to Chaney, the engineer who, in flashback, is shown clueing Billy in on the negligence of the Soundview managers.
The play does end a little abruptly – Gill seems to want to eschew a protagonists final speech, and that’s a fair enough choice. But if the end of Billy’s arc is his decision to finally do what Jack, and seemingly Gill, feel is the right thing, the audience doesn’t get a whole lot of time to savor that moment. There are also not one but two cracks about women gaining weight in middle age that don’t really add much to the experience and that, as a middle-aged woman myself, I could have lived without. But, all in all, the play is something audiences will feel absolutely privileged to have seen, and there are a good few performances left on the schedule.
“Soundview Summer” is Produced by Hudson Theatre Works, and will be presented at Theatrelab, 357 West 36th Street on Friday, November 10th at 8 PM, on Saturday, November 11th at 8 PM, on Sunday, November 12th at 3 PM, on Thursday, November 16th at 8 PM, on Friday, November 17th at 8 PM, on Saturday, November 18th at 8 PM and on Sunday, November 19th at 3 PM.