There are two kinds of die hard New Yorkers. Those who were born here and will never leave, and those who came here to escape small towns . . . and will never leave. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of those two, and if you’re the latter then Barrier Island will remind you of home, but may also remind you how far from home you’ve come.
Small towns are really more like big families with everyone related to you either by blood, marriage, business, church, club or calamity. There is both comfort and consternation in those ties that bind. In one regard, you know someone always has your back. But in another way, someone always is on your back. And depending on the kind of day you’ve had, that’s either a blessing or a curse.
In Barrier Island playwright David Stallings takes a microscope to a small Galveston, Texas town and delivers it to us through the eyes of two very different prodigal sons. On the one side of the boomerang we have Trey (the fantastic Anthony Crep) who left town after a tragedy in a hurry and hasn’t been back since. On the other side is prickly Laura (Jennifer Laine Williams) who comes back with an 11 year old son, Daniel (Frankie Seratch) and an almost too-perfect story about a husband who decided to stay back for a while. Both are brought back to town by family obligations in anticipation of Hurricane Ike.
For Laura and Trey, stepping back into town is as fraught with the stickiness of their respective histories as falling backwards into a vat of fly paper.
Not exactly awaiting their return, but seemingly never having left their appointed spots in the last decade, are the town locals with a little more dust on the sill but still spouting that small-town-small-mindedness that can sound so quaint to an urban ear until you realize they’re not joking. That bigotry you’re hearing is heartfelt. Under Cristina Alicea’s direction Stallings’ zingers melt like chocolate-coated Sour Patch Kids. Only for an instance does that sweet southern accent soften the initial blow before you’re left with the acidity of the words burning your tongue. These folks say what they think and they don’t apologize for it.
Big Nate (David L. Carson) has been running his bar out of Laura’s dad’s building with his wife Susie (Alex Bond) for as long as any one can remember. Perennially glued to one end of the bar is Bob (Stu Richel), curmudgeonly and cranky and living to insult the counterweight to his see-saw at the bar, a young woman named Cheryl (Carol Hickey). Between these two anchors other patrons include Carl (Mark Emerson) a man-child of indeterminate age who is slow witted but not too slow to toss back some beers and find himself a gal.
One generation down is Cheryl’s daughter Steph (Anne Clare Gibbons-Brown) who is pinging around that bar (all 15 underage years of her) like a restless pinball that’s just been released; bored of small town life but too young to do anything about it. Several years younger than Steph, and as much an outsider as his mom, little Daniel generally seems shaken by what he’s been brought into. Fiercely protective of his mom, but unable to latch on to much else, Daniel serves as the audiences’ quiet but steady navigator through this town and its customs.
And boy, are there customs here. Nothing shows the town’s insistence on staunch observance of tradition as well as Susie’s tangling with the school board as she tries to convince them to use 1-800-Flowers for Homecoming instead of the local Patsy’s Florist. Once we see that drama play out, it’s easier to understand how a town won’t let a man outlive his past (in the case of Trey), and still casts him as the bad boy who “did that thing and had to leave”. It’s also easier to understand how business deals, such as the one between Laura’s father and big Nate, were created on a handshake.
Trouble can shake this town up and unsettle it like a snow-globe, and in the 2 hours you’ll spend in Barrier Island trouble rains down with as much ferocity as the impending Hurricane. However, like a snow-globe, this is a contained world, where issues are handled from within in a way that makes sense to the parties involved, and outsiders (that would include you) don’t really need to understand, nor get involved, thank you very much. This is Town business. The Town will handle it.
Working alongside this story of small town ways is the bubbling romance between Laura and Trey. Both were run out of town by their own demons and both feel a little awkward being back. It’s hard to fit big ideas back into a small box, and it’s hard to take a step back and regress back into the human being you once were in the eyes of people who consider you family when you’re staring back with eyes that have seen more that you have words to explain. And so, the two inside/outsiders find themselves drawn to each other. The only trouble is, Laura has a wall around her heart that rivals the height of any seawall, and perhaps this story isn’t so much about whether the seawall can protect Galveston and keep out Hurricane Ike . . . but more about whether Laura’s defenses can protect her heart and keep out hurricane Trey.
Ultimately, Barrier Island is a glimpse into small town living that (if you’ve lived it) will make you nod in recognition and that will (if you’ve never experienced it) make you cock your head to the side in wonder. David Stallings has created such an honest, sometimes awful, sometimes heartwarming portrayal of what it means to come from a small town that it will either make you homesick . . . or happy you were born in New York.
Strong acting from David L. Carson and Alex Bond bring Stallings words not just to life but right into your lap; there are times when you feel like you’re just another patron at their bar – just another member of their family, and they’d as easily give you a beer or a hug as they would a menacing stare of warning should you step out of line. Their chemistry together is undeniable and there are moments between them that are so real that you check the program to make sure they don’t share the same last name. Same goes for Carol Hickey and Anne Clare Gibbons-Brown; the mother-daughter bond there is so powerful that you could envision them in any situation together, and you know they’d have the strength to pull through.
Carol Hickey as Cheryl brings tiny details to her performance that put a lump in your throat; she’s an exquisite force of nature who embodies this small town girl who is unwillingly put in a position of needing to define and defend a life that’s been the best one she was able to pull together, and Carol Hickey imbues her character with dignity as well as determination.
The set designed by Craig Napoliello (colored and shaded by the sound design of Martha Goode) is so spot-on that, upon entering the theatre, you have to make sure you head to the seats and not over to the tables, as the lure of a frosty cold one might make you forget that you’re actually in a theatre and not in a bar.
If you can’t get away this week but are looking to explore small town life for all its pride and peculiarity, then buy a ticket and take the short ride to the small town of Barrier Island. You’ll come away with a feeling of having spent an evening getting to know a town, its people, and its ways.
~~~Barrier Island Written by David Stallings Directed by Cristina Alicea Center Stage, NY 48 West 21st Street New York, NY 10010 Ticket Price: $18.00; $15.00 Student/Senior $54-Buy 4 tickets for the price of 3 Tickets by Phone: 212-352-3101 866-811-4111 http://www.mtworks.org