When History Repeats Itself

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

A Summer Day
Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street
New York, N.Y.

What happens when history repeats itself?

There are numerous answers and we get some of them in Norwegian Jon Fosse’s new play A Summer Day, that stars Karen Allen (the co-star of the hit film Raiders of the Lost Ark). Allen plays a woman who appears on stage looking out the window of her seaside home in Norway at the ocean. The time is a generation ago and she is waiting for her husband to return from a sail in his rowboat in bad weather. Suddenly, a second, younger woman appears in the same room with her husband, contemporary time. They argue about whether they want to keep living in the house, the same house as Allen’s character, and then, angry, the husband goes off in his rowboat for a sail and bad weather sets in. It is the same exact thing that happened to Allen’s husband, a generation earlier.

Fosse’s play about history is two stories in one, side by side. What will happen to each husband? Will one live and the other die? Both live? Both die? What will happen to the women as they wait and later, when they discover what happened to their men?

It’s a tricky play because you have to keep the audience engaged in both stories and, at the same time, make them remember their own family histories and how they were often repeated themselves (remember someone always telling you that “the same thing happened to your grandfather 40 years ago”). That’s the problem with the play; too many things just do not connect.

Another problem is that while the history of the old white seaside house is recounted, none of the history of the town or neighborhood is told. These two women would be alone, with no frantic neighbors with them, on the phones, down at the beach, out with the radios and searchlights? The only help the two women get are from two anxious friends who are visiting and, at the very end, local police.

I can’t tip off the ending of the play, but it follows long periods of two women staring out the window and repeating their thoughts, endlessly. A good half hour goes by with the women going over their story, again and again and again. In all of this talk, there is mention of the couples moving to the seaside to get away from the city and missing it, yet none of the reasons they miss the city are explained.

The house they live in has no television, no radio and no furniture other than a bench. Why is the only boat they own just a flimsy wooden rowboat with a small motor? Why would anybody be foolish enough to take such a tiny craft out into an ocean tumbling into a storm?

This is a history play with not enough history and too many loose ends. As an example, we have an actor who plays the younger husband, but nobody portraying the older one, yet the two stories are identical and are presented side by side. The younger woman apparently does not know what happened to the older couple, although the older woman knows all about the young couple.

I think you can see how anybody in the audience would get confused.

A Summer Day is at times haunting and at times intriguing. It has its moments of hope and of fright. The problem is that all of that is too little and too late. It is just too tedious and a history play in which the history is not illustrated very well. As an example, in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, also set in Norway, the seaside town and its people in that drama are wonderfully described and they help to build up the explosive plot. Why doesn’t that happen here?

Could this calamity have happened in real life? Of course it could, and probably has. Here, though, we have a slow moving double play inside of a history warp that just does not work as well as it should.

The pity is that the actors in it are very good. The multi-talented Karen Allen is a troubled and stoic older wife and Samantha Soule is quite moving as the frenetic younger wife. Both attract a lot of sympathy from the audience. Their friends, played by Pamela Shaw, McCaleb Burnett, Maren Bush and Carlo Alban, do a fine job. The director, Sarah Cameron Sunde, did as much as anybody could to make the play come alive in this scary seaside home.

They all worked with a tedious play, though, and one in which the generation old history was never quite brought into the future properly. History does repeat itself, but would anybody in this seaside village in Norway really care?

PRODUCTION: Produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Sets: John McDermott, Costumes, Deb O, Lighting: Nicole Pearce, Sound: Leah Gelpe.

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