Susan Stein remembers the rats. New York’s notoriously bold and brazen rodents were in Stein’s face in 2012 because they were forced out of the subway tunnels when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge inundated the Big Apple.
“I grew up in the city,” the New York-based actress says. “So I knew there were rats in the city, but now they were on the streets in a very big way.”
Stein is reliving her superstorm memories because she is in Charlotte rehearsing for Three Bone Theatre’s production of By the Water, which goes up February 28 and runs through March 9 at Duke Energy Theater. Playwright Sharyn Rothstein’s drama, directed by Ron Law, follows the travails of a Staten Island family processing the near destruction of their family home and pondering their future with the question posed by punk band the Clash’s 1981 hit, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.”
The show debuted in New York in 2014, but Three Bone’s staging marks the play’s Charlotte debut.
“We read the script and absolutely fell in love with it,” says Three Bone founder and artistic director Robin Tynes. “It’s funny, heart-wrenching and beautifully written.”
With its theme of rebuilding — plus a concurrent focus on obstacles posed by foot-dragging insurance companies and a social safety net riddled with holes — By the Water will draw eerie parallels for Charlotte audiences between Sandy’s aftermath and the ongoing recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Florence’s landfall last fall. Yet Tynes says the devastation and continuing frustration wrought by Florence didn’t figure in her choosing Rothstein’s play for Three Bone’s current season.
The company picked the show last May, she says, four months before Florence hit North Carolina, yet she acknowledges the show’s unintended topicality. Due to climate change, it seems that bigger and more frequent are the new norm, Tynes continues.
“These communities on the coast have been there for a long time and [now] people have to figure out if they’re going to stay…or leave. This show is interesting because it’s about one family dealing with a hard personal, emotional and socioeconomic decision.”
When By the Water opened in 2014, New York Times theater reviewer Charles Isherwood called the show “a kitchen sink drama without the sink,” because the drama unfolds in the roofless, ramshackle remains of the Murphy family’s home. The critic also likened the play to “a very special episode from a Norman Lear sitcom from the 1970s.”
Tynes laughs at the comparison, but doesn’t discount it. For one thing, shows like All in the Family tackled thorny issues with humanity and humor, she notes. The show is only 90 minutes long, she continues, but in such a short time it manages to create vivid, funny and totally relatable characters.
“It’s a tragic situation with a lot of heart and humor woven into the dialog,” she says. The characters are universal, Tynes continues. “Their struggles and situations have you feeling like you’re part of the family.”
The destruction of the Murphy’s home also reveals fissures within the family, Tynes maintains. The breakdown of the house unleashes a lot of family secrets, emotions and tensions between the father and his two sons.
Charlotte actor Tommy Prudenti plays one of those sons, Sal. His character has made good, but is still yearning for his father’s approval, Prudenti says. The New Jersey transplant adds that he’s able to access personal feelings for his role because he remembers living through Sandy while residing in the garden state.
“When Hurricane Sandy hit I was working for a talent agency in Manhattan,” says Prudenti, who moved to Charlotte in 2013. He notes that the area around his New Jersey home, about 13 miles outside of New York City, was impacted by wind, rain, downed trees and power outages. Train stations were also closed, so Prudenti worked from home for about a week.
“I remember seeing lots of devastation, particularly on the Jersey Shore coastline,” he says.
For her portrayal of the Murphy family matriarch Mary, Stein is also drawing upon a trove of hurricane memories — and they’re not just about rats.
“I was fortunate during Sandy because I live in the upper west side in Manhattan,” Stein says. “In my neighborhood, we really lucked out.”
Staten Island and the Jersey Shore bore the brunt of the storm, she continues, and they’re still suffering. Stein’s work on her holocaust-themed one woman show Etty took her recently to Monmouth University on Jersey’s north shore.
“These students were telling me that homes there have still not been restored,” Stein says. “People are still waiting for insurance money.”
Even Stein’s home turf in Manhattan was not entirely spared. While her home weathered the storm with no ill effects, everything on the island below 34th Street lost power for a long time. Stein remembers seeing people walk five miles or more from lower Manhattan just to charge their phones.
A striking illustration of the city’s shutdown came when Stein had to leave New York for an out-of-town acting gig. With the subways out of commission, she had to take a taxi downtown to catch a bus. Stein shares vivid memories of the nighttime journey: “I went downtown and once we got below 34th Street, it was pitch black. There were no lights. I grew up in that city and it was so weird to see it all in darkness,” she continues. “It was no man’s land.”
Yet the most profound Sandy survival tale came not from Stein’s memories, but from the actress’s aisle companion on the flight down to Charlotte for the first rehearsal of By the Water in early January. Stein noticed that the woman beside her had a Jersey accent.
“She was from the New Jersey coast,” Stein says. “Her house was so damaged [during Sandy] that she lives in South Carolina now. She had just come up to visit old friends.”
Like Mary, the Murphy family matriarch, Stein’s travel companion had to choose between staying in her storm-ravaged home, or moving on.
“What are the chances of that?” Stein asks. “I’m sitting next to a woman who is pretty much my character.” Stein also gleaned a crucial detail from her aisle mate. “She said that when they were cleaning up the house, she got a manicure every week because she needed to feel there was something in her life that was clean,” Stein remembers. “I asked her what color. She said pink.” That week Stein went out and got a manicure in the same color. It helped her feel she was on her way toward fully understanding Mary.
Stein’s attention to small-yet-universal details highlights the empathy that Three Bone’s cast and crew are bringing to the play. That compassion which underlies the production will also be carried over to the community, Tynes says.
For By The Water, the company is partnering with Habitat for Humanity. It’s a cross promotion that ties in with the show’s theme of rebuilding while highlighting the good work Habitat does for Charlotte, Tynes continues. As an added bonus, the cast had planned to join the home-and-shelter nonprofit organization, but ironically, that plan was canceled due to heavy rains.
Tynes hopes the Habitat partnership will encourage the show’s audience to give back to the community, a goal consistent with the production’s message.
“I’m a firm believer that if you can entertain and make people laugh, then you can get a message across more easily.”
For Tynes, By the Water highlights the importance of family. She also hopes that it will jumpstart a community conversation about how we are going to handle catastrophic storms like Sandy and Florence as they occur more frequently.
“There are a lot of people in North Carolina that are still trying to rebuild and figure out how to move on from last storm season,” she says.