Television fame may not be as big and shiny as movie fame, but it’s more indelible. When you show up in people’s living rooms week after week, they tend to form certain unnatural and long-lasting attachments. Gardner McKay, an actor who won his small-screen celebrity by starring as the swashbuckling Capt. Adam Troy on an early-’60s ABC series called Adventures in Paradise, would certainly have a hard time arguing with that.
McKay turned his back on a lucrative acting career in his early 30s and decided, after a couple of years spent wandering through the Amazon on foot and across Egypt on the back of a camel, to turn himself into a writer. The midlife reinvention went pretty well: He went on to create more than a dozen plays, most of them well-received, plus poetry and several novels. He also spent five years, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as the theater critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
But when he died last fall, guess what the obituary writers led with? And the fans who kept sending him piles of mail, and the people who stopped him on the street even when he was nearing 70—what were they remembering? The exploits of Capt. Troy, of course. For McKay, the role was like a huge, garish tattoo: He got it when he was young, was briefly proud of it, and then spent the rest of his life wearing the longest sleeves he could find, as it were. “He hated the fact that he was known for that television series,” producer Jean Doumanian, a friend of McKay’s, said after he died. “It was not the professional or private path he wanted to take.”
The best-known of McKay’s plays, a two-character romance called Sea Marks, is now getting a tender revival at MetroStage in Alexandria. It’s about celebrity of a very different kind, the sort of fame McKay was never able to enjoy: It’s the story of a man who comes out of nowhere to become a celebrated writer—who is seen fresh, and whole, for the words he puts on paper.
Colm Primrose (Michael Tolaydo) is an unassuming 54-year-old fisherman, not to mention an honest-to-goodness virgin, who has spent his entire life on an island off the western coast of Ireland. At a wedding there, next to the punch bowl, he meets Timothea Stiles (Catherine Flye), who’s in from Liverpool, where she works for a publishing company. They start trading letters, despite the fact that she can’t really remember which guy at the wedding he was, exactly. After a while, though, his spare, elegiac descriptions of the wind-swept coastline where he lives with his aging father start to win her over. Pretty soon they’ve arranged for her to make a return visit to the island, which they both need a few swigs of whiskey to stammer through.
If the whole thing is starting to sound a little like The Bridges of County Madison to you, well, you wouldn’t be too far off, except for one thing: Colm is a literary mystery for Timothea as much as a romantic one. Surreptitiously, she has been passing his letters to her boss, the mysterious and unseen Mr. Blackstone. (It’s unclear just what kind of job Timothea holds—whether it’s as a low-level editor or a high-level secretary; after she boasts that sometimes Mr. Blackstone “lets” her read the manuscripts, you begin to suspect it’s the latter.) By the time Colm makes a trip to Liverpool—wearing what seems to be the only outfit he owns, consisting of gray pants, scuffed black boots, and a yellowed fisherman’s sweater—his letters have already been published, in a volume called Sea Sonnets. He becomes the coastal version of a cowboy poet, celebrated for writing unpolished gems that lionize nature and a simple, hardworking kind of life.
Colm, celebrated on his book jacket and then by critics as an island primitive, thus is dragged into the publicity machine just as he is swept up into his first relationship with a woman. He’s buffeted and thrilled by the attention, then frustrated by it. He feels caught, like a fish, but in two nets at once. He misses the sea, along with his father, his fishing partner. He drinks too much Guinness. He plants his muddy boots all over the furniture. He starts worrying that Timothea, pushing hard for him to stay on in Liverpool, is setting some kind of trap. “I think she’s a woman to cut the toes off a man,” he says at one point.
Elsewhere, the phrases aren’t quite so strikingly turned. “My soul needs to breathe awhile,” Tolaydo protests, staring wistfully at the rear of the set, where a backdrop showing a romantic, jagged coastline has been helpfully provided. (The effective set design, which includes a ramp just in front of that backdrop in the shape of a gentle wave, is by Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.) This inconsistency, in fact, becomes the rhythm of the script: several lines that are less hackneyed than you expect, followed by a stray one or two that are more.
MetroStage’s version, directed by Nick Olcott, is wistful and slow-moving—a bit like Olcott’s recent production for the Round House Theatre of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, another lilting story of aging Irishmen with a gift for poetic storytelling. The play begins with a series of long monologues: First Colm introduces himself, and then he and Timothea read their letters. McKay seems most comfortable writing in soliloquy, and even after the two characters become a couple, he itches to get back to that form. Colm has another lengthy solo scene toward the end, in an appearance reading from his book. It has all the markings of an Important, Climactic Speech, and Tolaydo plays it up for all it’s worth, absolutely bellowing some fierce phrases about the dark valleys that loom between waves, even climbing the stairs of the theater to look the audience right in the eyes.
But throughout, the scenes featuring both characters, pushed away from the audience and into smaller spaces near the back of the set, work best. When the new couple is crammed into Timothea’s sagging bed and she clings to his shoulders as if he were a lifeboat, or when they come home drunk from a celebratory party at Mr. Blackstone’s house—it’s at these moments you can see a real, if improbable, attraction between the two.
Flye makes compelling the desperation that her character sometimes confuses with love for the strange, lumbering fish out of water she finds herself living with. She’s in firmest control of Timothea when the character is shakiest—which is a tough trick to pull off. Tolaydo is charming, and altogether sympathetic, as Colm; you root for him from the earliest scenes. But there’s just not much snap to his performance—maybe it comes from living near the sea, but his Colm seems waterlogged, his edges softened by sogginess. You want to come back and see him when he’s had a little more time to dry out and firm up. CP