Patrick Fitzgerald as Colm and Xanthe Elbrick as Timothea in Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Gardner McKay's Sea Marks, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly.
Patrick Fitzgerald as Colm and Xanthe Elbrick as Timothea in Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Gardner McKay's Sea Marks, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly.
(© Carol Rosegg)

New York stages have seen several Irish love stories in the past months, all filled with the peculiar Celtic humor, melancholy, and awkwardness that come from being alone too long. But Gardner McKay's Sea Marks, now playing at Irish Repertory Theatre, stands apart not just for its two strong performances but for the sheer beauty of its language. Ciarán O'Reilly directs this endearing and haunting play, which will speak to anyone who has been torn between love for another and fear of leaving behind the life one knows.

Colm Primrose (Patrick Fitzgerald) fishes the waters off the Irish island of Cliffhorn Heads, where he's lived all his life. He starts a long-distance romance with Timothea Stiles (Xanthe Elbrick), an ambitious woman who has moved from the sticks to the big city of Liverpool to build a career in book publishing. For over a year, they correspond through letters, and Timothea finds in his prose a raw, urgent beauty. "I think you might have a touch of the poet in you, the way Irishmen do," she writes. When they meet, Timothea brings Colm's primitively lyrical words to the public eye, but Colm finds no pleasure in celebrity, and his longing for the quiet isolation of his seaside home threatens to pull him away from the city and from the woman he has come desperately to love.

Fitzgerald does more than portray Colm; he channels the rough sea itself, with its cresting and crashing waves, his hair wild like a seagull in a gale. "Each morning by the way the sea looks," Colm says, "I know how to feel." To watch Fitzgerald's performance is to sense the presence of a natural force, rough and direct, unsullied by modern life, and innocent of the complexities that humans have created for themselves in urban spaces. Fitzgerald's performance is breathtaking.

Elbrick lends the more subdued Timothea the demeanor of a staunchly determined up-and-comer. You see in her face that Timothea is capable of great things and that she's determined to have more than what she was born with. But Elbrick retains a softness in her eyes that all the ambition in the world can't harden. Her Timothea understands Colm's desire to return to the sea even if she considers it impossible to do so herself. Fitzgerald and Elbrick have a chemistry that feels natural and honest. You want to see their two lovers, opposites though they be, make a real go of it.

McKay, an American playwright who died in 2001, writes with what seems like a deep understanding of Irish culture and of the men and women who populate some of its lonely shores. Though Colm and Timothea are the play's only characters, McKay gives us a convincing description of Colm's fisherman father, the MacAffee, and of the women who knit cardigans with particular patterns, depending on where they live, so that if a fisherman dies at sea and washes ashore, they'll know the town he came from. McKay's tender, sometimes brutal, always beautiful language rings with a poignancy unlike anything heard onstage of late, and both actors deliver his words with a great sensitivity to sound and rhythm.

Within the confines of Irish Rep's main stage, Charlie Corcoran has devised an exquisite rotating set that captures the charming rusticity of Colm's cottage on the island and the cramped space of Timothea's city apartment in Liverpool. Michael Gottlieb's lighting deserves special mention, as he magically uses focused light to create loneliness when the two lovers are apart, and warm hues from a back window to create solace when they are together. Indeed, the set has its own kind of poetry.

So make room for one more Irish love story on your theater calendar. It may very well be the most satisfying you've seen this season.