In the words of New York Times writer Sam Roberts, “In the summer of 1977, New York lost its mind.”
It was an unusually hot summer, and the serial killer Son of Sam was on the loose. The city was undergoing a financial crisis that led the the lay-offs of countless municipal employees. And there was a blackout and, after that, looting.
This time — which Spike Lee dubbed the “Summer of Sam” in his 1999 movie — provides an unsettling backdrop for “Tar Beach,” a riveting new play by Tammy Ryan that is at the Luna Stage in West Orange through May 9, in its world premiere. All of the above figures in the plot, or is at least alluded to, and there are also references to the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws” — not exactly feel-good big-screen entertainment — and the 1976 bicentennial celebration.
The central characters are Reenie (Emmanuelle Nadeau), a shy, sensitive teenager, and her more outgoing, “boy-crazy” older sister, Mary Claire (Emily Verla), who is plotting to sneak away for a night of partying with her best friend Mary Francis (Alanna Monte). The sisters live in Ozone Park, Queens, with their alcoholic father Roger (Bart Shatto) and grim mother Brigit (Heather Benton), who may be near the end of their marriage. “Tar Beach” refers to the roof of the building they live in, where Mary Claire and Mary Francis like to go to sunbathe and get away from it all.
This is basically a working class hell, made infinitely worse by an unseen trauma Reenie experiences between the play’s two acts. And yet the play is also about transcendence, and the way even the most dysfunctional family can pull together when faced with rough circumstances. And, ultimately, how the older Reenie deals with her vivid memories of this time.
There are lots of details that make “Tar Beach” true to its era, like Mary Francis’ Led Zeppelin T-shirt and Mary Claire’s lament about how she was “born between times” — since she missed the fabulous, revolutionary ’60s, when she was just a child, and felt the ’80s were bound to be better. (As a teenager myself in the ’70s, I felt exactly the same way).
Director Cheryl Katz (who is also Luna Stage’s artistic director) keeps the actors in constant motion. Even in their cramped living circumstances, they’re always maneuvering, trying to protect themselves from threats in their midst.
The set, designed by Brian Dudkiewicz, is intentionally shabby but versatile, allowing for the action to move smoothly from the sisters’ bedroom to the family’s kitchen, or the roof, or a large closet Reenie likes to hide in. Waves painted on the theater’s walls suggest the beach Mary Francis and Mary Claire escape to, in their minds.
All five actors deliver strong performances, with Nadeau, who is a sophomore at Westfield High School, showing remarkable maturity in her portrayal of the fragile, complicated Reenie.
For all its intensity, this play never crosses the line into melodrama, and though there are poetic moments, it stays rooted in real-life struggles. The characters are flawed but even when doing horrendous things, never really evil: They’re just trying to do their best, given the curveballs life had thrown their way. Which a lot of people were doing, in New York, in the summer of 1977.
For tickets, visit LunaStage.org.