With ‘Sea Marks,’ waiting for the big one

Kristin Wold and Walton Wilson in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Sea Marks,’’ directed by Daniela Varon. Kristin Wold and Walton Wilson in Shakespeare & Company’s production of “Sea Marks,’’ directed by Daniela Varon. (Kevin Sprague)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2010

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LENOX — Baby boomers, especially women, may remember the late Gardner McKay as the hunky hero of the 1959-62 TV series “Adventures in Paradise.’’ Quickly tiring of Hollywood glamour, McKay threw over a promising career to resume his true calling, that of world explorer (once his contract was up, he headed straight for the Amazon). He also took up writing, and one result was the 1971 play “Sea Marks,’’ a rarely produced work that director Daniela Varon found compelling enough to revive under the auspices of Shakespeare & Company.

Set in the late 1960s (a time, obviously, of great cultural upheaval), it’s an old-fashioned, sentimental tale about a lonely, middle-aged Aran Islands fisherman who strikes up a pen-pal relationship — and eventually a romance — with a similarly lonely publishing underling in Liverpool. He espied her at a local wedding, while affecting a nonchalant pose with his arm plunged into the punch bowl.

The latter image is as good as any to suggest the gentle humor that laces this somewhat fantastical script, which melds both sides of Tolstoy’s famous dictum about all great literature being reducible to one of two stories: A man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In this modest endeavor, we get both.

We encounter Colm Primrose (Walton Wilson) as he’s soliloquizing in his seaside croft cottage. Set designer Kiki Smith cutely suspends two dollhouse versions of the lovers’ abodes to indicate locale. This plodding scene eventually shifts to Timothea Stiles’s tidy parlor, where the object of his sudden affection (pretty Kristin Wold) reads aloud his initial feeler letter.

Wilson takes a long time to establish rapport with the audience. It’s Colm’s shyness talking, perhaps, but Wilson starts out with eyes so downcast and/or unfocused, he gives the impression of being blind. He starts to open up as Colm does, when — after a year’s correspondence and another distant-relation wedding visitation by Timothea — he accepts her invitation to leave behind the only world he has known, a sheltered, tradition-bound spot spared the slightest incursion of modernity, and brave the big city.

She’s a bold one, inviting this raggedy and (one presumes) odiferous near-stranger to come cohabit with her. Timothea is also ambitious, planning to package what she perceives as Colm’s “touch of the poet’’ and ride his coattails — or rather his frayed, stained Aran sweater — to literary glory.

Wold plays Timothea so sweetly, and makes such a touching case for her desperate bid to vault beyond her hardscrabble upbringing on a “mean little farm’’ in Wales, that it would seem churlish to fault her machinations. Besides, Colm is looking at one sweet deal! Fame, fortune, and a demonstrative main squeeze (before Timothea came along, this self-described “spinster man’’ admits to never having “courted’’), all on the basis of a few metaphor-heavy musings about the mysteries of the sea.

But how can Colm — now akin to a beached merman — resist the call of his muse?

It’s not exactly an insurmountable predicament, and thus not dripping with drama. But amazingly, Wilson — and by extension, McKay — pulls off an 11th-hour tour de force when Colm addresses a Liverpudlian literary salon with a fiery jeremiad about the primacy of knowing one’s place, in every sense. It’s as if suddenly we’d been transported into one of Brian Friel’s better plays. This one impassioned moment more than makes up for the foregoing lulls, inevitable in any fishing expedition.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at

SEA MARKS Play by Gardner McKay

Directed by: Daniela Varon. Set and costumes, Kiki Smith. Lights, Stephen Ball.

At Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 4. Tickets: $16-$48. 413-637-3353,