Madness, a drowning, young love and the threat of an alien invasion from space are all part of Edward Bond's thoughtful and incisive The Sea, subtitled A Comedy.
Less complex than some of the playwright's later works, the script focuses on a village's rigid social hierarchy, its hidebound past and present and the possibility of a liberated though uncertain future.
It's 1907 in a small east-coast British community, ruled over by the domineering Louise Rafi (Fiona Reid), a Lady Bracknell type whose variable moods keep everyone around her constantly on guard.
From her obsequious but sometimes competitive companion, Jessica Tilehouse (Patty Jamieson), to her servants and the village's shopkeepers, notably Hatch, the draper (Patrick Galligan), no one dares disobey this tyrant's demands.
In a storm at the beginning of the show, Colin, fiance of Mrs. Rafi's niece, Rose Jones (Julia Course), drowns. His best friend, Willy Carson (Wade Bogert-O'Brien), slowly steps in to fill the empty place in Rose's life.
Directed by Eda Holmes, the production proves yet again that the Shaw Festival has an amazing acting ensemble. They know how to mine the work's text and emotional subtext, carefully shaping it and engaging viewers with a humour frequently grim and bizarre.
At the centre of the action, Reid understands Mrs. Raffi's martinet qualities and her throwaway asides ("The art has gone out of shopping," she sighs), but in a rich speech near the end we learn that this controlling woman has a sympathetic side; she's become a bossy, overbearing woman because that's what's expected of her. Reid skilfully captures the monologue's blend of self-awareness, self-doubt and self-pity.
Equally strong is Galligan's Hatch, a man who, pushed over the edge of sanity, imagines that invaders from the stars will soon attack the town; he suspects Carson of being one of them. At times totally fearsome, at others misunderstood and pathetic, he falls apart at Colin's windblown, cliffside funeral, a climatic episode equally risible and upsetting.
There are other fine performances, too: Bogert-O'Brien's steadfast Carson, who becomes increasingly assured with Rose; Jamieson's confidante, usually toadying but occasionally determined to grab the spotlight; Peter Millard's Evens, a sometimes drunk beachcomber who is one of the community's few wise men; Ben Sanders's Hollarcut, one of Hatch's lieutenants; and Jenny L. Wright, Catherine McGregor and Jacqueline Thair as members of Mrs. Rafi's Greek chorus coterie.
The visuals - Camellia Koo's set, Michael Gianfrancesco's costumes and Kevin Lamotte's lighting - are also striking, with an emphasis on dark tones and a simple, conservative look. Holmes makes fine use of billowy curtains that are waved about to help scene changes; they echo the potentially dangerous sea currents and the exterior and interior storms that affect the characters' lives. John Growski's soundscape, a mix of the familiar and the otherworldly, is just as unsettling.
Ending on a note of heroism and love, with the chance of hope for those who forge their own path, The Sea is a fascinating play about the clash between the individual and society.