Strong Waters-12th Avenue Arts

An Affair to Forget

Strong Waters, the latest offering from local playwright Claire Zaslav and director Margaret VandenBerghe at 12th Avenue Arts, treads old water in its cliched and at times unintentionally bizarre portrayal of a rekindled love affair.

The story features three characters: James Merritt (Gordon Coffey), a retired actor; Jeffrey Merritt (Bob De Dea), James’ overly-attached adult son who lives with him on his houseboat; and Evelyn Adair (Maureen Hawkins), another retired actress who, shortly into the play’s runtime, is revealed to have had a sustained affair with James in the halcyon days of their careers. All surprises the play has to offer begin and end with this revelation, as the rest of the 80 minute runtime is filled with cliches, oddly paced conversations, and three actors doing their best to put on a show — a Sisyphean task, given the material they were left to work with.  

To the play’s credit, the overall production worked well to complement the play’s character-driven subject matter. The sole setting of the houseboat, albeit sparse, was tastefully designed and framed the action quite well, although it’s difficult to call it ‘action’ when most of the characters remain seated throughout the 80 minute runtime. Regardless, the set design is pleasing to the eye and inoffensive — perfect for such a character-driven show. Coupled with some inspired lighting work halfway through the play, it’s clear a good amount of care behind the scenes went into bringing this story to life, and that passion shines through. The show promised maritime melodrama, and the stage design did exactly what it needed to to follow through on that promise. 

Where Strong Waters’ currents really begin to falter lies in the uninspired writing and direction, both failing to interrogate the motivations of its characters beyond a surface level, leaving the audience with a hollow and at times uncanny viewing experience. Evelyn is repeatedly framed as the vixen who shattered Jeffrey’s late mother’s heart, but… didn’t James, as her husband, have arguably the greater part to play in her heartbreak? The play doesn’t seem to think so. Jeffrey, in his bizarre devotion to his father, attacks Evelyn repeatedly over the course of the play, placing the blame for his mother’s heartache squarely on Evelyn’s shoulders. Meanwhile, his father remains revered and largely uninterrogated; in another director’s hands, this material could easily have been a horror movie. I don’t mean to exaggerate, either — De Dea is clearly a talented actor, but his melodramatic outbursts as Jeffrey place him among the likes of Norman Bates’ parental obsession in Psycho, stunted adolescence and all. 

The old lovers, unsurprisingly, go on to rekindle their romance in a second act that hits some of the right notes, but falls despairingly short of originality. Coffey and Hawkins both do what they can with the script, delivering grounded if slightly understated performances. Evelyn and James genuinely read as old lovers, and that quality is far more to the credit of the performances than the script. I found myself rolling my eyes and checking the time every time James quoted a Romantic poem to Evelyn, but the two actors kept enough levity that the play never got too cloying. The performances were good enough for the caliber of the production, but ultimately failed to transform the lackluster script into something better.

If cliches, odd gender politics, and shallow characterization are your thing, run, don’t walk to 12th Avenue Arts. I can’t say I loved Strong Waters, but I admire some of its ambition, even if its lack of self-interrogation steered the show into some muddy waters. I found it refreshing to see two older actors get the chance to play romantic roles, despite being bogged down by Jeffrey’s misguided anger and the myriad cliched pitfalls the script couldn’t avoid. Strong Waters gets swept up in its own currents, but its heart is in the right place. Haven’t we all fallen for a pretentious, poetry-slinging purveyor of The Arts?


Strong Waters by Claire Zaslav, 12th Avenue Arts Studio Theatre, 1620 12th Ave, Seattle, 98122. Thurs-Sat 7:30, Weds/Sun 2:00 until February 3rd. 


Limited street parking. Take Capitol Hill Sound Transit or #43 bus.

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