By The Water

At the Northlight Theatre


By Dan Zeff


Skokie –In 2015, Sharyn Rothstein’s drama “By the Water” won a national award as the best play by an emerging woman playwright. That citation should be amended to delete the words “emerging” and “woman.” Rothstein’s play is a prizewinner, never mind the gender of the dramatist or whether she is just getting start in her theater career.

“By the Water” is an example of that commonplace American dramatic theme, the dysfunctional family. But Rothstein’s writing is so sure, the characters so three-dimensional, and the narrative so involving that no pat label can encompass her script’s merits. Sealing the deal are knockout performances by the cast and bull’s-eye directing by Cody Estle, who seamlessly weaves the tangled tapestry of family tensions into a nonstop engrossing evening.

          Rothstein based her play on an actual natural disaster, the catastrophic Hurricane Sandy that ravaged the east coast of the United States in 2012. The play is set on the coast of Staten Island, New York, which took one of the storm’s heaviest hits. Homes along the water were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Residents were faced with the agonizing decision of rebuilding their lives elsewhere, or staying to reconstruct their homes with the knowledge that another hurricane could deliver a ruinous blow at any time during the hurricane season.

          The action takes place amid the wreckage of the home of Marty and Mary Murphy, a senior citizen couple who have lived in Staten Island for 38 years. It’s where they have worked and raised a family and made enduring friendships, and for Marty its sense of community is irreplaceable. The beachfront community is his emotional as well as physical home and he refuses leave, in spite of the decision by most of his neighbors to relocate and the willingness of the federal government to provide cash grants to ease their financial burdens.

                                                                                                                          Photo Credti: Michael Brosilow

      That’s how the narrative stands at the beginning of the play. Marty is a domineering Archie Bunker blue collar type and he is intransigent, hearing no arguments about relocating from his son Sal or his friends and neighbors Andrea and Phil Carter. But as the 95-minute intermissionless story proceeds, the stay-or-move decision turns more complex. The Murphy family is seething with tensions. Sal has a troubled relationship with Marty and with his younger brother Brian, a likeable black sheep who is struggling with drug addiction after serving prison time for theft and has returned home, hoping to get his life on track. Sal urges his father to move. But Marty angrily refuses. Toward the end of the play there are revelations that suggest that Marty’s stubbornness resides from more than a love of home and community. Marty harbors financial secrets that shock the other characters, most of all Brian, whose life may be ruined by his father’s past illicit conduct.

Brian had a teenage relationship with the Carters’ daughter Emily he is trying to rekindle, with questionable long range prospects given Brian’s unstable past and Emily’s traumatic luck with bad marriages. Marty’s campaign to convince local residents to rebuild and not move riles the Carters, who fear the loss of government financing. Sal is the only member of the family who has created a successful career for himself, and Marty thinks his older son has gotten above himself in his attitude toward his family. Sal bickers with Marty but still yearns for his father’s approval. Sal had turned Brian into the police years before after a robbery, a sore point with both Brian and Marty. Sal, believing he acted in Brian’s best interests, resents their accusatory attitude. As the emotional temperature heats up, we watch Mary’s compliant attitude toward her husband’s tyrannical behavior wearing thin. The worm is ready to turn.

The tangle of resentments, most of them long festering, escalates as Marty sees his familiar world of home and community collapse. There is sincerity in his desperation to remain in the only place he has known during his adult lifetime, but for the first time in decades he is no longer calling the shots in his own household and he is scared. Marty is a flawed, thoughtless man but we have to sympathize with his attachment to a place that has been the bedrock of his life for so long. His American dream has gone bad and he is desolate, and helpless.

Rothstein’s dialogue is trenchant and often humorous, the comedy flowing naturally from the vividly etched personalities of the characters. The rising intensity of the narrative isn’t forced, the playwright releasing the revelations naturally, without melodrama. The characters may be flawed, but in a human way. There are no villains, even Marty earning the audience’s sympathy as his world comes apart. “By the Water” reminds me of Arthur Miller’s best plays, the realistic ones that explore suppressed family tensions and secrets, like “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “The Price.”

          The seven-member cast has been assembled from the cream of the veteran Chicagoland acting pool. Any production featuring Francis Guinan automatically attracts our interest. Guinan can excel in droll, urbane characters but he triumphs here as the grizzled, domineering Marty. In a commanding performance, Guinan runs the changes from belligerence to painful tearful breakdowns. He is perfectly complimented by Penny Slusher as his devoted wife who finally has had enough of her husband’s controlling personality.

                                                                                                                             Photo Credti: Michael Brosilow

Jordan Brown and Joel Reitsma are perfect as the contrasting brothers, Sal and Brian, each fighting family demons. Patrick Clear and Janet Ulrich Brooks are spot-on as the Carters, the best friends who rebel against Marty’s manipulation as he attempts to convince the locals that their uprooted community can be saved, a selfish view that runs against all common sense. Amanda Drinkall fits in nicely as Emily, a young woman who has taken plenty of knocks from life and sees dangers ahead in a renewed relationship with Brian, but how can she turn away from all that lovely sex and remain locked into a lonely isolated life?

Jeffrey Kmiec’s single set, the ruins of the Murphy’s living room, is an essential evocative character in the play. So are Rachel Laritz’s costumes, JR Lederle’s lighting, and the sound design and original music by Lindsay Jones. Dialect coach Eve Breneman has instructed the characters in a New York City twang that adds effective local color to the narrative

“By the Water” is a terrific piece of writing illuminated by a wonderful cast perfectly matched to their characters. Marty Murphy may distort his belief in community and home for his own self interest but the man is sincere in his passionate attachment to the place he has always known, and he’s understandably apprehensive of moving into unfamiliar territory. Rothstein makes all the conflicts between husband and wife, parents and children, brother and brother, and friend and neighbor absorbing and convincing. The play takes a little too long to wind down at the end, but otherwise “By the Water” is a superior theatrical and dramatic experience. Bring on Rothstein’s next play!

          “By the Water” runs through April 23 at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard. Most performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $81. Call 847 673 6300 or visit

                           The show gets a rating of 3½  stars.                  March 2017


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