Arts & Culture

Discovering more than just sea life, finding yourself, too

Jack Hunter

Miles O’Malley is a precocious teenage boy exploring the Puget Sound tidal flats when he finds a dying giant squid on the shore.

His discovery sets in motion a string of events — more sea life washed ashore, ever-increasing media attention and the confusing new awareness that comes with adolescence.

“The Highest Tide,” a play adapted from the novel by Jim Lynch, tells the story of Miles’ coming of age amid his newfound fame.   

“It’s not only about the changing world of the bay, but also the changing life,” director and graduate student Bobby Vrtis said. “What it is to grow up and have things change faster than you want them to.”

Colin Lawrence, who plays Miles, describes his character as “a 4-foot-8, 79-pound, increasingly horny, 13-year-old insomniac.”

“As (Miles) makes this great discovery on the Puget Sound and things start unraveling, he grows throughout the story and changes,” Lawrence said.

Senior Alex Frane, who plays Professor Kramer, described “The Highest Tide” as “charming” and “wondrous,” and praised Lawrence’s acting ability.

“Watching (Lawrence) on stage, he has so much energy and life, and he is just a very endearing, very likable person. That’s not him acting; that’s just him coming through his character,” Frane said.

Though some people think Miles’ discoveries of rare sea life are supernatural occurrences, Miles believes that he is just the only one paying attention to the wonders of everyday life.

Vrtis points out that a major theme of “The Highest Tide” is the importance of finding the magic in small things.

“Sometimes we get struck by the depth and complexity of life — the natural world, the ocean and the only thing we can think to call it is magical,” Vrtis said. “It’s not really magical. Life is just that special, it’s that complex, and it’s that interesting.”

“The Highest Tide” is part of University Theatre’s Year of the Book, featuring plays adapted from books, which is co-sponsored by the Oregon Humanities Center.

The script for “The Highest Tide” moves between a first-person narrative, a live-action dialogue and a third-person narrative.

On April 21 at 6 p.m., University Theatre will host a book discussion with Vrtis and some of the cast and set designers. Patrons are encouraged to read Lynch’s novel before or after seeing the play.

“A lot of times, when you have a play or even a movie that is adapted from a book, the playwright is trying to find a way to create a story that walks and talks without narration,” Vrtis said.

“The Highest Tide” was adapted by Jane Jones of Seattle’s Book-It Theatre. Early in the rehearsal process, Jones came to Eugene and led a three-day workshop for the actors.

“Since most of the play is a narrative, we tried to apply that to the show and stay true to how you would actually tell a story,” said junior Lacy Allen, who plays Miles’ love interest and former baby sitter, Angie.

“The Highest Tide” is Vrtis’ tenth directing project to date. He said that he was “very lucky” in this particular show in terms of having a strong cast and crew.

“It’s been a real treat to work with actors that I just like so much,” Vrtis said. “I’ve been fortunate in terms of this show to really enjoy and respect every actor that I cast. Watching them work is just so inspiring. In some ways I feel like all I do is set the basic ground rules and watch them play. I don’t have to work very hard because they are all so creative.”

Allen said that the play came together quickly and she enjoyed working with Vrtis.

“Bobby’s a really good director,” she said. “He’s really clear about what he wants, and he
explains it to you in a way that can really soak in.”

Because the play is set in present-day Washington, with most of the action taking place around a bay in southern Puget Sound, Vrtis worked with the set designers to create a set that could work in a variety of situations. The set features a large wooden pier, and many parts of the scene, including the sea life, are imagined.

“We made the decision very early on that we’re not going to be able to bring out a 37-foot giant squid or a ragfish. We wanted to keep a certain amount of mystery to it,” Vrtis said.
“The set has got a very nice simplicity to it that makes it very flexible in terms of playing.”

Vrtis said he hopes students enjoy the local feel of the play and the relatable story line.

“‘The Highest Tide’ is a story about growing up and change,” Vrtis said. “However much we like to think that once we get to college we’ve established who we are, we still are going through so many changes as life goes on.”

“The Highest Tide” opens Friday, April 16 in the Robinson Theater. The show will run April 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24, 30, and May 1 at 8 p.m. and April 25 at 2 p.m.
Vrtis and the dramaturg will host a discussion at 4 p.m. following the April 25 performance. Tickets are $7 for University students, $12 for seniors, other students, and University faculty and staff, and $14 for the general public.

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