GREAT BARRINGTON — Ghosts haunt the fabric of Jim Frangione's uneven new play, "Breakwater," which is having an uneven world premiere at Simon's Rock of Bard College's McConnell Theatre as the inaugural offering of South County-based Barrington Public Theater.
Set in Hyannis in the late summer of 1990, "Breakwater" revolves around a headstrong, brash, angry, 28-year-old woman named Bobbi Herring (Raya Malcolm), who works the night shift driving for a local cab company.
Bobbi is on a mission — two-fold mission, in fact. She has bought at an auction a 1960 Lincoln Continerntal Mark Five that belonged to the Kennedy family. The car is being kept in her mother's garage where Bobbi spends most of her free time fixing it up and making it roadworthy in the hope of selling it and making enough money to move out of her mother's house into an apartment of her own. Bobbi's larger mission is to find her biological father, who is as much of a blank to Bobbi as the space on her birth certificate where his name should be.
There are plenty of candidates, including, it turns out, JFK, for whom Bobbi's mother, Joanne (Anne Undeland), worked.
Although he appears in only four scenes, JFK looms large in "Breakwater." Played persuasively by Ryan Winkles — who suggests JFK's distinctive speech patterns, rhythms and accent without falling into an embarrassing imitation — the assassinated president appears as a ghostly figure whom we first see and hear in a long monologue, delivered as he takes in the sea air along a Hyannis beach, summoning the past, the Nixon debate; the retreat Hyannisport and this beach held for him. He is young, in his prime, mature; a flawed hero haunted by a life that fell short of the promise it held for him. Coming as early as it does in "Breakwater," this somewhat lengthy elegaic speech feels intrusive, disruptive. JFK's quotation of a passage from a poem by Alan Seeger at a key moment as late in the play as you can get leaves us wondering whether there hasn't been another play that's been moving along beneath "Breakwater's" surface.
JFK sees himself as Bobbi's guardian, shepherding her on her own personal journey, even as he, on a spectral plane decades after his death, is seeking something personal that eluded him in life
That's a big load for "Breakwater" to carry and it doesn't carry it well. The odd paradox here is that without JFK, "Breakwater's" essential story about Bobbi is somewhat mundane and familiar. The result is a split-personality play that, at this point in its development, falls short of its vaguely defined reach and ambition.
Director Kelly Galvin's actors move in and out of Carl Sprague's appropriately minimalist setting and John Musall's spotty, too shadowy lighting with steadfast purpose, although things begin to bog down somewhat as "Breakwater" nears its conclusion.
As Bobbi, Malcolm is, for the most part, effective as an emotionally rootless young woman who is, in many ways, her own worst enemy. In a performance that threatens to sound too much of a single note, Malcolm catches the roiling intensity and justifiable anger Bobbi carries for a life that has seemed to betray her and cause her harm — literal and figurative — at every turn in her youth. It's way of being that is both genuine and a means of protecting her vulnerabilities. Malcolm's Bobbi is resourceful, sarcastic, wary, determined and, in the end, graceful and authentic in her acceptance of a turn in her life she has no way of anticipating.
David Joseph is engaging as the cab company dispatcher, Eben Fricker, and also, in one scene, as an awkward young man who hooks with Bobbi at a bar.
Undeland is credible as Bobbi's mother. Leigh Strimbeck is particularly effective as one of Bobbi's regular customers, Tippy Dempsey, a woman of means who knows Bobbi's mother, and also in two scenes as a town clerk who reveals a heart beneath a curmudgeonly way of being.
"Breakwater" is a moderately interesting first step for a fledgling theater company that, like the two principal characters in Frangione's play, is very much on a journey.