nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 29, 2006
By any standards, eavesdrop's new production of Jack Hanley's solo drama The Ledge is a meticulously crafted, well done piece of theatre. The script, adapted from the O. Henry Prize-winning short story by Lawrence Sargent Hall, contains fine moments of poetic force; Christopher Eaves's direction and sound/video design create a visually unique landscape that illustrates and underscores the story's main Man-vs.-Nature theme; and Mike Houston delivers a physically punishing performance that impresses with its skill and finesse. And yet, with all this top-notch talent on display, I found myself strangely unmoved by The Ledge, which may have more to do with me than with the creative team.
The Ledge tells the story of a nameless New England fisherman who, at the beginning of the play, is lying dead on a wharf. He washed up on shore the morning after being killed in a deadly storm and he tells his wife what happened to him from the great beyond after she discovers his body and looks into his lifeless eyes. Turns out it's the day after Christmas, and The Fisherman was killed during a Christmas Day duck hunting jaunt with his son and nephew. He tells the bulk of The Ledge in flashback, slowly revealing the events of the day before.
The play's title refers to a freestanding piece of reef that comes up out of the ocean at low tide, several hundred yards from the shoreline, providing an ideal platform for shooting flocks of ducks that fly overhead. It's a favored location of The Fisherman's where he treats both boys to their first hunting expedition. A rugged, self-reliant individualist, The Fisherman thinks this is a good time to put a gun into his 13-year-old son's hands and teach him his first lessons about being a man. His 15-year-old nephew, on the other hand, is long overdue for such schooling ("I say to my brother, too old to be getting his first gun"), so The Fisherman takes matters into his own hands, even as he views his brother's son with more than a little contempt ("A weak boy like you doesn't belong out here in the middle of the ocean. You have to prove to me you belong out here.").
Since The Fisherman is dead at the start of the play, we already know how it's going to end. This storytelling technique is not new, but it is deceptively difficult to pull off with any degree of suspense, especially on stage. (The most successful examples that come to mind, in fact, are both movies: Sunset Boulevard, and, in a slightly modified form, Reversal of Fortune.) Thankfully, Hanley seems more interested in making discoveries about his protagonist than creating dramatic tension with the plot, so he easily sidesteps this potential pitfall.
Unfortunately, by focusing on The Fisherman, Hanley falls into another trap: engendering audience apathy with an unlikable main character. This is where things get a little tricky from a reviewing standpoint, as matters of personal taste enter the mix. The creators of The Ledge obviously think The Fisherman is a compelling character, or else they wouldn't be doing a whole show about him. But, to me, he's an unsympathetic figure: he selfishly spends Christmas Day away from his wife (whom he claims to have genuine affection for) in favor of hunting ducks, and takes their son with him. He shamelessly bullies both boys, scolding them for even the slightest perceived transgression; whether it's giggling out of joy or putting the skiff in the water less than expertly (The Fisherman expects them to already know how to carry themselves on a hunting trip—in essence, how to be men—without having yet taught them). And, he foolishly puts them in danger by taking them to the ledge in the first place: The Fisherman stays liquored up on whiskey all day, his nephew can't swim, and they are nowhere near anyone who could help them. What kind of man does all of this?
But, I stress again, this is just what I think. The creators of The Ledge have done their respective jobs well, and mounted a polished production.