This production is just a gem, one of those treasures you sometimes discover when you walk into a regional theater. And it's a shame that some folks will see the words South Camden Theatre Company and on that basis decide not to go. Because By the Water (through Sept. 23), although small and low-budget, is the real thing: an important, clear-eyed play with heart, embodied by a cast who make it sing, beautifully directed by Scott Grumling.
First, the play. Sharyn Rothstein has written something fine, a portrayal of Staten Island working-class people losing their homes and neighbors to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. (I haven't seen any Jersey Shore Sandy-related drama yet, but after this play, any further Sandy plays face a high bar henceforward.) Rothstein sees Mary and Marty Murphy, their sons Sal and Brian, plus their longtime neighbors the Carters, with affection but not sentimentality: Their blind spots, resentments, and cruelties are as plain as the flood line scarring the walls. We plunge into government buyouts, small-town power plays, and insurance fraud. We're struck by the shame of (to quote Sal, played with relentless reluctance by Alfie Mennino) "a neighborhood that never should have been built." It's near-insane denial: People on the supply side build in a floodplain, sell those homes – and, on the demand side, people see those homes as a dream to buy.
Next, the set. On this small stage, Robert Bingaman's clever yet simple design involves storm-wrack, tarps, plywood planks, and curtainless windows with their shadows and silhouettes, eloquent with class, time, and place, pulling us right in. In a heartbreaking move, telling you all you need to know about her, Mary (wonderfully played with a dose of Edith Bunker of All in the Family by Susan Dewey) rehangs a crucifix on a moldy wall.
Third, the cohesive seven-person cast. These are good actors with a fine script and director, and they make us feel the world turn. Stay put and rebuild, or take the money and go? Old friends threaten to split. ("We're turning on each other," one says. "It feels like we're at war with the whole town.") Apparently good people turn out to be scammers. Apparently heartless people shoulder sacrificial love – while forever love looks less and less like forever. Meth addicts show more character than anyone expected; others show less.
Plenty of humor arises from the scene. Describing a sexual dry spell, Emily (wonderful Aimee Theresa), former girlfriend of Brian, remarks, "I've been a little understaffed of late." Phil Carter (Michael Tamin Yurcaba) and wife Andrea (superbly bitter Elizabeth Terry) muse on what having three divorced daughters says about them. Phil: "That we were schmucks for paying for three weddings."
Marty (played with towering intransigence by Russ Walsh) says that "living by the water, it gets into your soul." Mary: "And into your carpeting." Andrea: "This cake is so moist!" Mary: "You should see my living room." Marty is the protagonist, but Mary is the beating heart of the play. She has lived her life by and for him. Disillusioned, unsure, she later says, "It's not that I thought you were right all those years. … I thought you were good."
In a season of plays at South Camden Theatre Company written by women, By the Water is the best so far. And, yes, it gets into your soul.