Mysterious ‘Promise’ a work in progress

Wellfleet staging melds dance and drama

Ed Hyland and Tessa Klein with dancers in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s production of “Promise.’’ Ed Hyland and Tessa Klein with dancers in the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s production of “Promise.’’ (Stephanie Zollshan)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / November 9, 2010

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WELLFLEET — “Promise’’ is exactly that: a wispy, tantalizing glimmer of what might be, rather than a fully satisfying work.

In this drama about the mysterious events that engulf a bartender and two of her regular customers, playwright James B Murphy II sought to craft an allegorical tale that draws upon the tidal power of two vast forces: the sea and ancient myth.

While Murphy crafts some thought-provoking moments, this hybrid of drama, dance, and music, which is now receiving its world premiere at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, draws most of its own power from the innovative creations of choreographer Christopher d’Amboise.

Only during the ethereal, sinuous dance sequences created by d’Amboise (coupled with composer David Van Tieghem’s eerie music) does “Promise’’ fully engender the dislocating, “Midsummer Night’s Dream’’-like sensation that the real world and the spirit world are bleeding into one another.

To his credit, the director of “Promise,’’ John Tillinger, recently acknowledged in an interview with my Globe colleague Laura Collins-Hughes that the play is still in a developmental stage. “We’re still struggling with it,’’ said Tillinger.

Those struggles are evident in this intermittently compelling and atmospheric but patchy “Promise.’’

Tillinger and set designer James Noone have given “Promise’’ an evocative visual texture, and there are moments that cast an otherworldly spell. But even as an allegory, the story feels slender and underdeveloped, and at 70 minutes, the play feels as if it’s over almost as soon as it has begun. The actors still seem to be groping their way toward a full understanding of their characters.

Maggie (Lizbeth Mackay) is the even-keeled proprietor of a seaside bar whose location is described as “at the end of a long pier somewhere on the Atlantic Seaboard.’’ On this day, the fog is as “thick as the day I lost Bill,’’ Maggie says. Maggie’s lone customer at this moment is the dyspeptic Sledge (Ed Hyland). Sledge is the brother of the late Bill, and appears to be Maggie’s lover now. He works as a boat broker, and it’s been a long time between sales.

Maggie and Sledge are soon joined by a fisherman named Randy (Graham Winton), just back from a week at sea. Randy is notorious for telling whoppers about three-eyed codfish and blue seagulls, a habit that infuriates Sledge. This time, Randy claims that when he was out in the bay, he heard voices singing a song in a “strange language.’’ Then, he insists, he discovered a harbor seal with a fishing rod in its mouth. Sledge ridicules Randy, but Maggie is intrigued because the fisherman’s tales “speak of a different world.’’

As they talk, several spirits from the Celtic “Otherworld’’ — visible to us but not to the trio in the bar — hover and creep and slither about. One of them periodically touches Sledge, plunging him into a paroxysm of pain. At other times, one of the spirits will speak a line of dialogue concurrently with one of the characters.

Sledge challenges Randy to a bet: Unless the fisherman can prove that he did indeed find the fishing rod in a seal’s mouth, he must give Sledge all the fish he catches for the next month. Randy agrees, but says that if Sledge loses, he must relinquish his boat. Once the terms of the bet are established, Randy vouchsafes one additional detail: When he was out on the water, shortly after he came across the seal, he saw “an incredible-looking woman with long, raven-black hair.’’

After Randy leaves, a woman fitting that description enters the bar. Sledge takes her for a hooker, but she is actually a Celtic woman from the 10th century named Promise (Tessa Klein). In song and in utterances that have cryptic poetry about them, Promise tells of an “island of joy’’ called Elsewhere. It is, she says, “an ancient place, where many blossoms have bloomed and fallen. . . . And it is full of music.’’

As it turns out, Promise might have an answer for Maggie about what happened to her long-lost Bill. She might also have a lesson for Sledge (enacted in a spellbinding dance sequence in which the spirits ensnare him in a fishing net) that there are more things in heaven and earth — and “the ocean of life’’ — than are dreamt of in his cynicism.

Don Aucoin can be reached at


Play by: James B Murphy II

Directed by John Tillinger

Choreography by Christopher d’Amboise

Composer, David Van Tieghem. Sets, James Noone. Lights, Frances Aronson. Costumes, Nicole V. Moody

At: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Julie Harris Stage, Wellfleet. Through Nov. 21. Tickets $32, 508-349-9428,