Back in the days of VHS, I would occasionally fall asleep during a movie. Waking up hours later to the snow on the television, my dreams clinging to my consciousness, I would stare drowsily ahead of me and wonder, “Have I really been asleep all this time? Or have I been staring at the static for the past hour?”
Jon Fosse’s A Summer Day elicited a similar reaction. When the house lights came up, the audience surrounding me suggested that I had just seen a play. The rules of drama would indicate that that play had featured characters and action. But walking out of the Cherry Lane Theater, I had an itching feeling that I had been sitting quietly for eighty minutes for no logical reason; that perhaps what I saw was a play, but as the dialogue (very quickly) evaporated in my memory, it seemed more likely that I had just watched Karen Allen repeat the same phrases about “darkness” and “the waves” over and over again.
To be fair, there is something of what traditionalists call plot. An older woman (Ms. Allen), living alone in the country, recalls when she first moved into her waterfront house with her depressive husband (McCaleb Burnett). One night, while being visited by a friend (Maren Bush), the younger woman (Samantha Soule) waits for her husband to return home from boating—for the next fifty minutes or so, she remains in denial about what has occurred to everyone else onstage and in the audience: he has committed suicide.
A Summer Day has the air of a play inspired by movies that were themselves inspired by plays, but it retains only the worst aspects of each medium; we have neither the literary language that is acceptable in the theater, nor the intimacy of closeups or mobility of location available on the screen. It is sort of like a Bergman movie, minus the interesting cinematography or rapist-spider-Gods.
The script was translated by the director, Sarah Cameron Sunde, from the original in Norwegian. Perhaps something has been lost here. Perhaps lines like, “i was emptied / empty like the rain and the darkness / like the wind and the trees / like the sea way out there,” have greater resonance in that Nordic language. In English, they sound like angsty, Sylvia Plath-inspired poetry written by a rich, white high school girl. (By the way, that “i” is lowercase in the script.)
I’m tempted to write that A Summer Day is terrible, but it doesn’t warrant such strong words. It’s hard to call nothing terrible. The play is like a butterfly: brush your fingers against it, and it will die. In fact, as I write this, I feel like I’ve forgotten it already.