Theater Review: THE HIGHEST TIDE at the University of Oregon's Robinson Theatre

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Miles O'Malley (Colin Lawrence) and two cult members (Aloura DiGiallonardo and Stephanie Morgan) look at some sea life. Photo by Ariel Ogden

Sea Life, Earthy and Full of Fire
UO cast rides The Highest Tide
by Suzi Steffen

At almost every turn, The Highest Tide surprises and delights its audience. A coming of age tale that resembles The Catcher in the Rye not in the slightest, Tide works the mind and heart with honesty and acknowledgement of life’s salty mix of joy and bitterness.

That’s thanks to book author Jim Lynch, book-to-play adapter Jane Jones of Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle and the actors and director of University Theatre’s fine production. Director Bobby Vrtis pulls excellent performances from several of his cast members and keeps the action, even in this told-in-the-past-tense play, moving along.

Like strands of kelp intertwined on the beach, threads and themes braid through the story. Science, religion and belief, desire, loss and love form a potent brew, and the play demands a large, flexible cast — something much more manageable in a university than a professional theater.

(Read the rest after the jump!)

Both book and play center on Miles O’Malley, 13 years old and tiny, who lives in Olympia, on Puget Sound. That’s right, theater audiences: This play is set in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s about the kind of ocean life we’ve seen time and again at Yaquina Head, in Newport at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Hatfield Marine Science Center, at those low tides where park rangers show off tidepool life. The Highest Tide concerns the stink of the mudflats at low tide, the ways working-class people’s lives fit or don’t with the ebb and flow of the water and clashes between rational and irrational, between a mother and a father, between a deeply gifted kid’s passion and the world’s distance, credulity and betrayal.

Colin Lawrence plays Miles, and though (happily for Lawrence) he’s not as small as the 79-pound, 4-foot-something kid, he wipes out both memories of his amusing performance as Tom Sawyer in Big River and disbelief at his age and size. Lawrence has a nigh-on Herculean task: He’s onstage for the entire play, constantly narrating Miles’ experience while also acting it, stepping in and out of the boy’s memories while responding to the other characters (who also happen to be narrating-while-acting).

Miles’ best friend is Kenny Phelps (Craig Lamm), who provides a stark contrast to Miles’ tiny geek ways. Yet the friendhip illustrates Miles’ ability to apply the laws of the ocean to the world of humans on land. In his bio, Lamm (whom I thought quite strong in the Leebrick’s Shakespeare's R+J and less so in As You Like It) says that he “plans to pursue a career in adventuring” after he graduates this spring. His splendid, striking, humorous and tender turn as Kenny makes me hope that some of that adventuring includes an acting career.

Speaking of adventurousness, Kenny’s aggressive but clumsy pursuit of sexual knowledge highlights the liminal state of both boys. They’re suspended, as anyone who was a teenager can remember, in that space between wanting and knowing, in the place where free-floating lust doesn’t have the weight of experience or carnal knowledge. The boys’ discussions about the G-spot go beyond humor to fumbling toward adult life, thrilling and disappointing as it will be.

Miles must grow up in a variety of ways over the course of the play, hoarding certain secrets through the final curtain. Lawrence manages never to lose Miles’ youthful resilience. Beset by earth-shaking and shattering events, Miles retains a well of hopefulness and innocence that surely will shift as he grows older. His spontaneous hugs will become more hesitant, his precociousness turn less precious, but Lawrence makes the audience trust that Miles will retain his love for the ocean and its mysteries.

Special kudos to Jack Watson, who plays Judge Stegner with humor and a touch of self-aware absurdity (the audience venerates the actor as the town venerates the judge, and Watson knows that but doesn’t overdo it), and Jennifer Thomas, who plays the elderly Florence with candor, warmth and poignant accuracy. Lacy Allen plays Angie Stegner, who’s a sort of Sleater-Kinney wannabe and Miles’ former babysitter/object of desire. Allen gives Angie full range of her bittersweet life as a small-town girl afraid of and desperate for the world away from the gray, persistenly gritty life of Olympia.

The “cult” scenes last too long and contain too much silliness, and a few of the actors need to understand what projection means, but the bestselling book translates brilliantly into an even better play. Get your tickets now.

The Highest Tide runs through May 1 at the Robinson Theatre at the UO. Tix at www.uoregon.edu/theatre or 541-346-4363.

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