KC Actors Theatre production of Gardner McKay’s Sea Marks is a sweet, bittersweet tale of love and expectations we have for one another.

Darren Kenney & Cinnamon Schultz. Photo: KCAT/Brian Paulette

Words mean nothing. Words mean everything. Between these two statements lies the tension between Colm Primrose (Darren Kennedy) and Timothea Stiles (Cinnamon Schultz).

Words bring them together when Colm, a fisherman on Cliffhorn Heads Island at the north of Ireland, begins writing letters to Timothea, whom he met at a wedding on the island. She didn’t remember him but loves his letters and writes back. Timothea agrees to meet Colm when she can come to the island.

Seen one way, their meeting is embarrassingly sophomoric. Seen through a different lens, we see two people living in a socially restrictive society connecting to one another. Colm agrees to go back to Timothea’s home in Liverpool, England.

Colm and Timothea try to find common ground. Colm grew up a fisherman on a lonely island. He lives alone almost at water’s edge in the house he built from stones on-site. He’s 45 and, in his own words, “a spinster.” Life on the sea may be hard and unforgiving, but Colm accepts that bargain.

Timothea, who seems younger than Colm (we don’t learn her age), grew up on a farm in Wales. She was responsible for the chores: break the ice in the washbasin in winter, light the morning fire, and tend to the animals. As soon as she was able, she moved to Liverpool, landing a position at a publishing house, and getting her own apartment. Timothea loves her job and has no intention of ever having to break ice in a basin again.

Smitten by Colm’s letters to her, Timothea showed them to her boss, who loves Colm’s writing so much he publishes them as a book of poetry, totally unbeknownst to Colm. When Timothea makes a present of the book to Colm, a sincere gesture meant to honor and please him, he is at first taken aback. He feels exposed. These were his private letters to Timothea. Colm has no ambitions as a writer beyond communicating his feelings for her.

The unintended consequences of the book’s possible success have an adverse effect. Colm chafes at autographing a pile of books. He chafes even more at meeting the publisher and is downright aghast (and terrified) about reading from his book to a group of people, which he sees as a useless activity. It dawns on him that Timothea and the publisher expect him to keep writing. What will he write?

Timothea says he can make it up but Colm has never seen himself as that kind of writer. He wrote letters from the heart. He’s not an artist; he’s a fisherman. After years of living alone on an isolated island, Colm has little experience in society and absolutely none in a relationship. To some he may appear to be a provincial rube, but he had no aspirations beyond loving Timothea. Colm is not ready, and may never be ready, for the kind of life Timothea envisions for them, however much he loves her. In Liverpool, Colm is a fish out of water.

Jan Rogge’s direction holds attention in a play that could have been sedentary. She uses Gary Mosby’s “split screen” and Jonathan Robertson’s sea sounds and music to create an air of longing and loneliness.

Near the play’s end, words pull Colm and Timothea apart. Instead of reading from, as he calls it, “this idiot book,” Colm uses the occasion to honor the MacAffee, the man who raised him, recently drowned in the sea. Kennedy’s Colm delivers a moving soliloquy that tells who he is and why, and why he must be what he is and nothing more.

Sea Marks
Playwright: Gardner McKay
Director: Jan Rogge
At: Kansas City Actors Theatre
Ends: January 28

Sea Marks – Theater Review by Frank C. Siraguso