The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park hit a home run with its world premiere of Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship on the Shelterhouse stage. It’s the story of an unanticipated love triangle: Thirtysomethings Sarah and Sam are awash in the early months of love, a relationship they’ve both wished for but only just now found. It’s Christmas Eve; a tied-up Christmas tree, just delivered, stands in the corner. It never gets any further.
The romantic glow quickly fades when Nate, a childhood friend of Sarah, knocks on the door and upends the evening. An elementary school teacher (and a self-professed child), he is quirky, intense and self-centered, but darkly and intellectually attractive. He’s also emotionally unbalanced in ways that disrupt Sam and Sarah’s nascent relationship. She’s a social worker, yearning and caring but tentative; he’s an aspiring singer/songwriter, is sensitive and philosophical, startled to have finally connected with someone who makes him forget he’s shy.
Ziegler’s characters wander through time and memory, occasionally turning directly to the audience to describe one another or recall event from the past. Her script is artfully written, without feeling overly crafted. Nate presents Sarah with W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a text that informs the play’s title and offers its thematic core, how life streams on, unconscious of tragic events and powerful emotions.
Director Michael Evan Haney has staged A Delicate Ship on a minimal stage (designed by Narelle Sissons), basically Sarah’s apartment with just a few pieces of furniture and a hardwood floor. The blank wall (with a whitewashed fireplace mantel) and ceiling accept a few projections, but mostly are washed with light (designed by Kirk Bookman) that subtly shifts colors as the characters step in and out of remembered events and monologues. Haney, a Playhouse director since 2002, has a flair for staging shows with unusual narrative structures, and he excels here. The triangle shifts and shimmers, and you never quite know where it’s headed. The outcome is a surprise, yet perfectly obvious if you’ve paid attention, especially to Auden’s poem.
I predict that A Delicate Ship will in time find its way to many other theaters. Bravo to the Playhouse for bringing yet another excellent new play and writer to Cincinnati audiences — first.
A DELICATE SHIP, presented Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through April 20.