A Day by the Sea, from 1953, Is a Refreshing High Tide

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, A Day by the Sea

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.

The Mint Theater Company, now in its new home at Beckett Theater, on Theater Row, W. 42d Street, New York, stages venerable old chestnuts of plays, usually delighting its audiences and stunning them with historical problems from long ago that are as fresh as this morning’s news headlines. They have done it again, with gusto, in a superb new staging of N.C. Hunter’s 1953 drama A Day by the Sea, which opened last weekend.

The play starts out as a friendly old British reunion saga set is seaside Dorset. Forty year old son comes home to see mom, old friend drops in for visit with her kids, longtime buddies share a beer or two. But then the problems that faced people in 1953 drown everybody like an ocean tsunami and they are as real then as they are now, more than sixty years later. The first is aging. Old people in 1953 were simply tossed into the closet and told to stop talking “to save your energy.” Today these folks are not locked up in the house; they are out there working, raising money for charities and attending college classes. A doctor in the play tells people his life is over, and he is just 56. Today doctors work into their 70s and sometimes longer. The doctor complained about his advanced age of 56 to a governess who claims her life is over and she’s only 35.

In the program, playwright Hunter writes in 1953 that “at forty it is natural to look back and to look forward, to measure progress, to compare past hopes and present realities…it is late.”

When I was a kid in the 1950s, turning forty meant that you died but still walked around. Age discrimination was awful.

The plot of the play revolves around the demotion of headstrong, confrontational and rather annoying Julian Anson, who has devoted his life to the British Foreign Service with little reward. Now he is being taken from the glitzy and important Paris office and given a boring desk job back in London. His career has ended. He is forty and frustrated and has no hopes for the future.

This happens at the same time that Julian’s mom, family matriarch Laura Anson, is looking forward to some big promotion for her son, in whom she is disappointed at his low station in the government at his “advanced” age of 40. Julian’s story, being forced out of his job by the government, seems like it took place in America yesterday. This is the land of layoffs, buyouts, half-jobs, downsized workers, forced retirees, interim employment and millions of temps. America is a massive warehouse of good people who worked hard for years and were unceremoniously dumped from somewhere. Julian’s story is the story of all Americans today and it is a dagger in the heart for all of us.

But A Day by the Sea is more than that. It is the story of a mom full of life who has to care for an elderly relative who would simply collapse if it was not for her and a doctor friend who lives in her house. She is a sturdy woman, in charge of her family, who, as she ages, feels lost in the world. It is the story of Julian and his love for a woman he cared for long ago, Frances Farrar, who is staying at his mom’s house. Can he recapture the glory of the past? It is the story of a homely governess who does not believe she has any future and friends who keep reminding her that romanced can arrive at any moment.

There are some striking political conversations in the play too. The play was written just eight years after the end of World War II and characters seem certain that the calamity of that war will dissuade people in the future from ever getting involved in a war again.


It is a story, too, of all the people in the world, most of them, who struggle and never attain great success, always reading about the successful people in newspapers or following their stories on television. They are the people who, collectively, make up most of the world, not the Kardashians or all the real housewives of wherever.

Austin Pendleton has done a fine job of bringing this 1953 drama to life and to modernize it and take all of the 1950s people and make them appear as our neighbors today.

Hunter’s play is full of finely etched characters and they tell a gritty story about aging, the tests of family love and job woes. Pendleton gets strong performances from Jill Tanner as the mom, Julian Elfer as son Julian, Philip Goodwin as the doctor, Katie Firth as Frances Farrar and others. They stand out individually and work with each other to form a memorable ensemble cast in a memorable drama.

This day at the sea is just that with splendid seaside sets by scenic designer Charles Morgan. You hear all sorts of birds and crashing waves in the background, thanks to sound whiz Jane Shaw. She even has a swing in the garden set. Remember swings?

One note: the play runs nearly three hours. Most of the third act could be cut to make the play shorter and brisker without losing any of its considerable strength. Three hours is longer than a day by the sea itself.

The Mint in its new home at Theater Row is better than ever. This is one day by the sea that you want to see, a glorious sand castle of theater.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Mint Theater. Sets: Charles Morgan, Costumes: Martha Hally, Lighting: Xavier Pierce, Sound: Jane Shaw, Props: Joshua Yocom. It is directed by Austin Pendleton. The play runs though September 24.

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