carried away on the crest of a wave by David Yee, as directed by Helen Pafumi at The Hub Theatre, is a profoundly haunting meditation on the connectedness of all living things. Based on one of the most tragic events of our time, the 2004 Tsunami, the production is an ode to the importance of hope in the midst of despair. As Helen Pafumi has written, “I tell stories, and thank goodness there are those of us who do. Because the world without a story is just a rock, and the people on it, just imprints. And we all know it is so much more, but we can’t go on unless we are reminded of that stunning truth.”
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami cost over 230,000 lives, and has been called by National Geographic perhaps the most destructive tsunami in history. In his excellent book, Wave of Destruction, Erich Krauss describes the horror of a doctor in Thailand as he realizes that his 177-bed hospital is suddenly faced with 1,500 patients. In another incident, he portrays a man running from “breaking, bending, twisting noises and the scream of [a] jet engine.” In her book Tsunami 2004, Tracey Lee, who was a tourist in Sri Lanka, describes a sound like a plane crash, houses collapsing, silence, and then the cries of the victims. There are heart-rending stories of children being swept away from their parents’ arms, and of the terrifying realization of an adult child who must accept that a parent will never come back. The recent devastation in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines is a reminder that such tragedies still happen and will continue to happen.
This is the U.S. premiere of carried away on the crest of a wave, which has been successfully produced in Canada. In 2010, the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) produced Live Streaming, which was also based on the 2004 Tsunami. The production was set in a temporary Internet café outside the National Theatre, and Director Dries Verhoeven took a unique approach; each audience member was connected via computer to a Tsunami survivor in Sri Lanka. In an interview with the Independent, Mark Ball, Artistic Director of the Festival, said “You get a much more nuanced understanding of the impact that the tsunami had on a person’s life.”
Yee’s work also leads to a deep understanding of the trauma, as he portrays the dilemmas of individuals struggling with chaos. In an interview with ShowBiz Radio’s David Siegel, Yee said, “I had to take everything I learned in five years about this epic event and distill it, not as an event-log of the incident, rather as an extra-narrative account of how it impacted people. I’ve always said that this disaster was like dropping a stone in still water; and my interest was not in writing about the stone, but about the ripples it created.” Yee, who is co-founder and Artistic Director of fu-GEN Theatre Company, Canada’s only professional Asian Canadian Theatre Company, is an innovative new talent whose work has been produced in Canada and internationally. carried away on the crest of a wave is an admirably ambitious paean to hope in the midst of overwhelming disaster.
When we enter we are met with what appears to be an exploding wave; a painted scrim, with pieces of “waves” shooting out of it, and chairs, a tricycle, and a half-open suitcase. We can hear the sound of waves, static, and soft voices on NPR discussing the tsunami. There are piles of chairs; a television; a picture frame; a broken basket; all images which suggest the loss and horror of the event.
The play is structured as a series of vignettes; a priest, Amal (Ryan Sellers), seeking validation for the miraculous survival of his basilica and all the people in it; two siblings, a runner and a swimmer (Nora Achrati and Rafael Sebastian Medina) whose house is sinking; and egotistical DJ Rick (Ed Christian) who argues for the curative properties of an insensitive and cruel song (written by him, naturally) about the disaster. Among the most powerful characters are Jasmine (Nora Achrati) a prostitute whose customer is concealing a tragedy; an orphan girl (Hedy Hosford) who is saved by a stranger; and two men, Vermin (Andrew Ferlo) and Diego (Ryan Sellers), one a survivor and another who blames himself for what happened.
Nora Achrati is radiantly persuasive in a number of roles; a scientist, Beckett; a Utah mother, Lenore; and the sadly perceptive prostitute, Jasmine. Edward Christian shows impressive range and talent as the temperamental DJ, Rick, the prostitute’s customer, Crumb, and an FBI special agent. Andrew Ferlo is outstanding throughout, from his first appearance as a Muslim engineer, Ma’mar, to his last as Vermin, a survivor on the beach.
Ryan Sellers gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the Roman Catholic priest, Amal, who is hoping for a miracle. His portrayal of Diego, a man tortured by guilt over his role in the disaster is deeply moving.
Rafael Sebastian Medina is touching as Sanjay, a well-meaning company man trying to control an out-of-control DJ, and shines as the swimmer who takes off in the ocean to survive. Finally, the adorable Hedy Hosford is simply perfection, in her every appearance as the orphan girl.
Director Helen Pafumi has captured the complexities of the play with great style and intelligence. Scenic Design by Robbie Hayes is evocative and subtly attuned to the mood of the piece.Lighting Designer Jimmy Lawlor provides a shimmering tone which almost seems melodic; and costumes by Madeline Bowden are always appropriate and imaginative. The sound design by Matt Nielson is fresh, sensitive, and varied. Suzanne Maloney excels in her dual role as Properties Designer and Dramaturg.
The play itself functions as a tragedy with multiple protagonists. Every possible irony and nuance is explored, and the painful contrasts in the fate of the characters bring out the essence of what it is to survive a catastrophic event. Above all, the playwright celebrates the value of compassion.
Helen Pafumi, in an interview by Jacqueline E. Lawton, said, “I started The Hub in Fairfax because I felt that proximity to the city should not be the main factor in whether or not a community had high level, professional theatre.” She has succeeded brilliantly. Stories heal; stories sing; stories are our collective memory. The people of the tsunami, and of all such natural disasters, deserve this poetic tribute. I hope we can all support it, and them.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
carried away on the crest of a wave plays through December 8, 2013 at The Hub Theatre in the John Swayze Theater – 9431 Silver King Court, in Fairfax, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase tickets online.