THEATER | “The Inland Sea” at Macalester College: A great U.S. premiere in our own backyard


I have to admit to a little shiver of pride every time something theatrically significant happens, not in some other big city like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but right here in Minneapolis/St. Paul instead. The most recent example—the U.S. premiere of a new play by Naomi Wallace, The Inland Sea, at our own Macalester College.

“God’s world before you fiddled with it was never meant to last.”
Wallace keeps racking up the playwriting awards—an Obie, a Kesselring Prize, the Blackburn Prize (twice) and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. In addition to her playwriting, she’s also a screenwriter (Lawn Dogs, and War Boys – a personal favorite of mine), a poet and an activist (present in all her work across genres). She hails from Prospect, Kentucky, so it’s nice to see one of her plays appear for the first time in the U.S. here in the Midwest. 

“The village you intend to move. It’s not sure it wants to move.”

The last time I saw a Wallace play was probably when Outward Spiral produced her play In The Heart of America (about racism and homophobia in the military). Set during the first Iraq War, this Minneapolis production had its first performance literally as the second Iraq War was starting. That was 2003. Eight and a half years later, here we are.

“All I see is mud in my sleep. Fields that pretend to go on forever. A river that bends and twists like an animal.”

The Inland Sea is timely and timeless in its own way, since it tackles other issues which refuse to go away (until we, perhaps, finally begin to deal with them). Though originally produced in London in 2002 and set in England of the 18th century, The Inland Sea still feels like it was written to echo America’s current fractured political landscape, the battles over the environment, and even the latest eruptions of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just goes to show that none of this is new. There have always been haves and have-nots, divisions based on race or gender or education or income. As one of the characters in the play says, it’s only when the poor or disenfranchised start speaking up and fighting back that anyone really sees them.

“It’s like God’s come back to make a change.”

As befits a tale of England in centuries past, the plot is practically Dickensian in design. It’s a sprawling tale of interwoven plotlines with a cast of sixteen which is, oddly enough, easy to follow thanks to Wallace, director Beth Cleary, and the actors she’s tasked with creating these characters. Most of these student actors fit the roles so well, despite the fact that they’re all much younger than the people they’re portraying, that it sometimes feels as if the piece was written for them. Accents occasionally slip but overall it’s just so much fun watching the story unspool and all these characters collide that you’re willing to forgive the production a little rough edge here and there. The commitment to this play of everyone involved is energizing, and rivets the audience’s attention.

“My hands were not ruined through pleasure, sir.”

The time is the 1760s. Noted landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown (Rob Gelberg) puts his younger brother Asquith (John Bennett) in charge of his latest landscaping commission – the grounds of the large estate of the unseen but much beloved Lord Heywood in Yorkshire, Northern England.

“I can change this entire landscape. Alone, I cannot alter who I am.”

A couple of out of work shipbuilders, Castle (Willie Gambucci) and Slip (Jeffrey Kaplan), and an out of work sailor from the West Indies named Jayfort (Will French), are hired on to do the massive amounts of digging and moving of dirt and trees to reshape the entire landscape. A couple of soldiers from the local regiment, Scarth (Chad Wilson) and Nutley (Jeesun Choi) have been hired to guard the project, and also help dig.

“Everything breaks, child. Just give it time.”

In order to complete the redesign of the grounds, the Brown brothers deem it necessary to move the local village out of the way, so the ramshackle homes of the less fortunate don’t spoil the view. Half of the village is more than happy to be bought out in order to move. The other half of the village is a little more stubborn. They’re all just tenants on Lord Heywood’s land, and Lord Heywood has always been good to them.  But villagers Algren (Matt Dehler), Waltz (Thalia Kostman), Betty (Kat Hunter) and Lonoff (Sam Olson) are debating whether to stay put either for sentimental reasons, or to leverage a better deal.

“Like the finger of God. Like bits and pieces of Christmas in the air.”

Also among the villagers are Ellen (Zoe Rodine) and her daughter Hesp (Zoe Michael), a young farmer’s widow. Ellen’s husband and other daughter Bliss (Ann Stromgren) supposedly left for the new world of America several years back, but they have heard nothing from them since. Ellen gets one of the other villagers to write for her, since she herself doesn’t know how, and letters are sent to places she thinks they might end up. The letters recount the doings of those left behind in England, and the upheavals taking place around them.

“You can’t bury a thing that’s awake.”

A relative of Lord Heywood’s, Simone Faulks (Tamara Clark), keeps trying to paint scenes of the Heywood estate. However, the rapid demolition and reshuffling of the landscape leaves her painting trees that are no longer there.

“There’s something dark in the air this morning when I woke.”

Also lurking around the edges of the action is the gamekeeper and bastard son of Lord Heywood, Leafeater (Jon Dahl), whose grip on sanity is tenuous at best. The disturbance of the soil has turned up human bones – bones that hold the answer to a number of questions surrounding characters in the play. Leafeater pockets a skull, while Nutley the soldier continues collecting the bones they find, thinking that he hears them speak to him. Disturbing the remains of the dead is, as always, a really bad idea.  The ghost of a young girl begins appearing in people’s dreams (or broad daylight if they have a looser hold on reality).

“Venison, venison, God won’t save us…”

Asquith the apprentice landscaper and Hesp the farmer’s widow strike up an affair which can’t end well. But it would be foolish to bet against Hesp’s resourcefulness and survival skills.  All of these “have-nots,” in fact, have been scrapping all their lives.  They’re ready and able to fight back if they see the need. And nature, as we all know, also often refuses to be tamed.

“Listen.  The years are coming up fast behind us.”

It’s not strange that it required a college to take on the task of producing this play.  The Inland Sea is a massive undertaking. I can see how you might attempt to do this simply in a black box environment, but it would probably lose some of its majestic scope.

“Most of us aren’t lucky, sir. All we’ve got is our working shoes.”

Thomas C. Barrett’s lighting and scenic designs incorporate the entire audience as well as the stage space. Rather than standard seating, rough-hewn wooden benches have been constructed for the spectators. (Sturdy, but don’t slide over too fast or squirm in your seat. Splinters could be your reward. For me, this extra bit of danger and potential discomfort kept me better focused on the story at hand. This is, after all, the rough life of the characters before us.)

“Someone is gnawing through my back to get to my heart.”

A light blue cyc meanders like a river up the back wall of the stage and up and over the ceiling above the audience’s heads. The stage itself is composed of enormous mounds of dirt, shoveled around over the course of the evening. Multiple entrances, plus platforms to the sides, above, and even in the middle of the audience keep spectators literally surrounded by the story at all times. Director Cleary and her actors keep the whole thing moving briskly along.

“You’re not the first woman to go without, you won’t be the last.”

The institutional resources Macalester has to stage The Inland Sea are surely the envy of many a theater artist in this town (I know I’m envious). In addition to Barrett’s set and lights, there’s Lynn Farrington’s costume design, Michael Croswell’s sound design, Maria McNamara’s properties design – all of which helped build an entire world in a different century out of a pile of dirt and some wooden planks. Amazing. Plus, the drowning of one of the characters toward the end of the play involves a large set piece which comes swooping in over a platform in the center of the audience in a way that really knocked my socks off. Never underestimate the punch of a little spectacle.

“What will you leave behind?”

Small word of warning – The Inland Sea is not for the squeamish when it comes to matters of human sexuality. There’s a lot of frank talk about sex. Though no one’s body parts are ever actually exposed, the inference that certain sex acts are taking place right in front of the audience raised more than a few eyebrows. (I’m sure the rehearsal where they had to discuss the subject of fisting was a doozy.)

But sex is commerce. Sex is about power. Sex is about class. Sex is how two people connect in the most direct way possible. So sex is just as much a part of radically changing the landscape in this play as anything else. It’s just a shame for the characters in this case that sex is hardly ever about love.  But that’s one of the many elements that keeps things interesting in The Inland Sea. Very highly recommended.