Photo by Ken Howard/SCRSouth Coast Repertory has a history of cultivating new playwrights. A few of them fall, anonymous, by the wayside. But many, such as Amy Freed, evolve into masters of the craft. Based on her first major play, Nostalgia, it's a safe bet that English playwright Lucinda Coxon will follow Freed into dramaturgical glory.
Nostalgia is hampered somewhat by trying to be more than it is—a spooky tale that works earnestly to build a connection between the temporal and spiritual worlds. There's enough richly poetic dialogue, wonderful characterization and haunted happenings to establish Coxon as a playwright of immense gifts and awesome potential. And any play that includes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while mentioning his greatest literary hero just once is brave indeed.
Director Juliette Carrillo gives Coxon's play the sparse, claustrophobic setting it needs, although the minimalist river that flows through the set distracts from the mystical pull of the river that runs through the play's setting in rocky, rural South Wales. Following the death of their parents, two brothers, Tom (Daniel Blinkoff) and Will (Michael James Reed), have taken over the family farm. They work on one side of the river while an elusive, mysterious woman, Buddug (Susannah Schulman), engages in a lot of really weird shit on the other side. She keeps rocks in her shirt, ferries sheep across the river and talks of her family lineage: they're sin-eaters. In Welsh folklore, a sin-eater is an untouchable, a class of folk whose religious obligations include the particularly grisly one of eating bread and salt deposited on corpses. This act of transubstantiation results in the absolution of sin, a religious duty for which the sin-eater was given coins—and then run out of the village.
Though descended from sin-eaters, Buddug isn't one. But she is a prostitute, and there's a lesson in there somewhere. Tom is captivated by the woman, and his romantic intentions cause Will no small amount of consternation. Into this Gothic scene steps Doyle, a leading spiritualist to whom Will has written with surprising news: Doyle's recently deceased son spoke at a séance.
At this point, Coxon's play goes a bit awry. There's much talk of forgiveness and the afterlife, of the need to generate hope for the present instead of nostalgia for the past. But none of it really goes anywhere.
There's a difference between a bad play—say, Phantom of the Opera—and imperfect art like Nostalgia. Despite its inability to say the something big it wants to utter, Nostalgia remains a wonderfully gloomy and engaging play blessed by fine performances and direction. In contrast with the gloom she's conjured here, Coxon's future is as bright as an episode of Teletubbies.
Nostalgia at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Dec. 2. $27-$51.