Five years ago, the British director Carrie Cracknell won praise in New York for a U.K.–based production of A Doll’s House, a fresh adaptation of Ibsen’s protofeminist play by Simon Stephens. At the time, Cracknell had just worked with another acclaimed playwright from across the pond, Nick Payne, on Blurred Lines, a new work examining gender politics and inequality.
So it’s both appropriate and ironic that Cracknell will make her Broadway debut this summer with a double bill of one-act plays by Stephens and Payne, each work featuring only a single, specifically male character. But for Cracknell, a major element of Sea Wall/A Life — which earned raves at the Public Theatre last February, and is set to begin previews July 26 and open August 8 at the Hudson Theatre — is its defiance of certain stereotypes concerning men and women, particularly in addressing a major rite of passage.
“I think it’s been rare to hear men talk sensitively and movingly about fatherhood,” Cracknell says, noting that’s changing somewhat “as our understanding of gender roles evolves. There’s an idea of feeling profoundly unsafe once you become a father, and you become aware of the responsibility that it involves, the intensity of it. That’s one reason I was so interested in doing this.”
The men we meet in Sea Wall and A Life, respectively played by stage and screen stars Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, are both fathers and sons who convey great love — for their wives, children, parents — and experience profound loss. Sturridge has collaborated before with Stephens, Gyllenhaal with Payne, who first performed an earlier incarnation of A Life himself. Cracknell herself has “a long-standing relationship with both Simon and Nick. I’ve worked on two or three pieces with each of them,” she says.
“Both Jake and Tom were passionate about these plays,” Cracknell says. “Tom was drawn to this amazing psychic space in Sea Wall. There’s something particularly British about [Sturridge’s] sensibility and his emotional landscape.” With Gyllenhaal, in contrast, “the script evolved, as we found the syntax and structure were too British, and as Nick rewrote it for Jake’s voice. Jake brings a kind of lightness to it, along with the soul-searching.”
Sea Wall/A Life’s stars express mutual admiration. “Among the myriad things Carrie has brought to this,” says Sturridge, “is instilling confidence in us, that we didn’t have to pull out a bag of tricks, that the act of two people genuinely being themselves and sharing stories was enough. And that’s the hardest thing to do, so it was a real act of bravery on her part.” Gyllenhaal adds, “She’s also very strong and tough, in that she would accept nothing less than that.”
During rehearsals, Cracknell found time each day to bring the two stars together “so that they could listen to each other. The actors have such an affinity for each other, and we were looking for ways that they could connect, and to get inside the essence of each story and put it all together so that it really felt like one night of theater.”
The audience, Cracknell notes, also plays an integral role in the play. “Of all the pieces I’ve directed, this one seems to have the most emotional contact with audiences. It’s my husband’s favorite piece of all those I’ve directed. I think it takes people slightly by surprise, and it really opens their hearts.”