“On the Shore of the Wide World” is, on the surface, a classic family drama, and rather less dramatic than most. Or so it would seem, judging by the restrained tones, whether fond or quarrelsome, in which people converse. There is so little conspicuous display of emotion that it takes awhile to learn that a tragedy has taken place. And when a character cries (quietly), it has the impact of a dam bursting.
The family, in this case, is named Holmes and has long resided in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester and a frequent setting for Mr. Stephens’s work. Peter (C.J. Wilson), a house restorer, lives with his wife, Alice (Mary McCann) and their two teenage sons, Alex (Ben Rosenfield, very fine) and Christopher (Wesley Zurick).
Peter’s parents, Ellen (a wonderful Blair Brown) and Charlie (Peter Maloney), live nearby. Their overlapping existences are routine-driven and cozy to the point of claustrophobia. Small wonder that each of them talks about fantasies of going elsewhere, of moving to a different town, or even occupying a different bed. Most of them seem destined, though, to stay only on the shore of the wide world that looms beyond.
Scott Pask’s single, multipurpose set has a look of oppressive solidity, with its heavy doors and sturdy central staircase. Christopher Akerlind’s discreet lighting transforms the stage into a place of different homes and rooms, of city buses and bridges.
There is also the abandoned hotel where the Holmes brothers meet up with Alex’s new girlfriend, Sarah Black (Tedra Millan), who pops anti-depressants as if they were candy. The hotel is the favorite hangout of Christopher, the more verbal and flamboyant of the siblings, who develops an instant crush on Sarah.
You wouldn’t thank me if I told you much more of the plot. The story unfolds over months, and the life-altering events that occur are revealed slowly and by indirection, sometimes as if they were conversational afterthoughts. People are opaque to one another in Mr. Stephens’s world, and they are never sure how much they can discuss with others, even (or especially) those closest to them.
Yet you infer an astonishing amount about all the characters, who also include a pregnant book editor (Amelia Workman),…