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‘By the Water’ offers insights on natural disaster in new Rohnert Park production

Mary Gannon-Graham as Mary, Mike Pavone as Marty and Mark Bradbury as Sal in "By The Water." (JENNIFER GRIEGO)

DYLAN SIRDOFSKY,

Is it time to rebuild from the ground up, or relocate and start over somewhere new? This is a choice many people in Sonoma County have had to consider in the aftermath of the October wildfires. While it may feel like no one else understands, just remember: You are not alone.

Natural disasters continue to occur, changing lives. That was the case with 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the topic of Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s next play, “By the Water,” written by Sharyn Rothstein. The story focuses on a devastated neighborhood.

“It’s a very compelling family drama,” said Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller in a phone interview. “I’m so jaded. It’s very hard to surprise me, and this play surprised me.”

Miller has been around the block, acting and directing most of her life, and holding her present position at the theater for the past seven months.

She stirred some controversy last August for canceling her first show at Spreckels and the season opener, “The Foreigner,” a farce dealing with the Ku Klux Klan, shortly after a white supremacist rally sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

For Miller, this production hits much closer to home — right in Miller’s backyard of Coffey Park to be exact, where her house survived, opposed to more than a thousand homes that were destroyed there in October’s wildfires. Yet she had chosen the play well before the fires, because of how powerful it was to her, and since it hadn’t been done in the area.

“It parallels ‘Death of a Salesman’ quite a bit,” said Miller. “That got me very excited. I did not see the twist coming near the end of the play. I loved that.”

Face conflict

The play centers on the fictional character Marty Murphy, dealing with the aftermath of the destruction of his grandfather’s home by the hurricane. The Murphys are at an age where they thought it was time to start relaxing a little, but despite being in their 60s, they want to rebuild, and face conflict when their neighbors, friends Phil and Andrea, opt for a government buyout.

Community becomes the central theme of the play, as the audience discovers how these people are motivated to stay put for various reasons, or — quite the opposite — feel compelled to move forward. Local theater lovers may relate all too well.

“Theater is all about developing empathy,” said Miller. “Whether you’re watching it, or performing in it, it’s about experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes.”

“By the Water” premiered on Broadway in 2014, two years after the hurricane. Miller described it as an intimate play with a small cast. It is mostly a drama, but there’s quite a bit of humor sprinkled throughout. However, there’s also the culmination of a tragedy’s impact.

More than possessions

Whether disaster comes in the form of an earthquake, hurricane, flood or fire, the end result often wipes away much more than material possessions. A lot of feelings come bubbling up within relationships, and sometimes this includes the emotional baggage people carry constantly.

“It uncovered a lot of underlying secrets, resentments and yearnings within this family,” said Miller of the play. “There’s the physical washing-away, and the metaphorical washing-away.”

The cast had no trouble relating to the play’s theme. This production’s leading man, Mike Pavone, who plays Marty Murphy, endured losing his home in the wildfires, and was able to commit to his role. Miller herself believes it’s a miracle her house survived that first night.

As someone who evacuated at 2:30 a.m. with the flames right nearby, she’s hoping “By the Water” will be cathartic for its audience.

“It’ll be something that will really get them talking,” said Miller, “and they’ll be able to relate to this family in a way they would not have been able to a few months ago.”

She remembers opening “Monty Python’s Spamalot” on Friday, Oct. 13, the same week of the fires. While attendance was under projections, the show went on, and people came in wanting to laugh.

Develop empathy

First and foremost, Miller wants people to be entertained. However, with “By the Water,” she also hopes to help the audience develop empathy, have a communal experience, realize there are others going through similar experiences and relate on a deep level with the characters onstage.

“Seeing it with other people, that group experience is important,” said Miller. “I want people to be out in the lobby discussing it during intermission and on the ride home.”

Clark Miller, her husband, is in the show, which is directed by Carl Jordan. The cast also includes Mary Gannon Graham as Mary Murphy, as well as actors Madeleine Ashe, Katie Kelley, Jared Wright and Mark Bradbury.

“I hope people will come see it, that they won’t avoid it because they’ve never heard of it,” Miller said. “It’s a play that deserves to be seen and that’s why we’re doing it.”