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Seal of Approval

The Coterie makes a legend of the sea stand on two legs.

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Between Land and Sea, the new Laurie Brooks play at the Coterie Theatre, is subtitled A Selkie Myth, a reference to a Scottish legend that one night a year, seals swim onto shore and morph into women. Fortunately for us, several actors have stumbled onto a Kansas City stage and morphed into compelling characters.

This world-premiere production, directed by Scott Copeland, is dusted with mysticism and grounded in reality. And until a misguided move in the last quarter-hour, it's a beautiful, moving piece of theater.

Elin Jean (Heidi Stubblefield) is a lovely teenage girl whose strange, webbed fingers make her the target of her peers' ridicule. She's an introvert who's more comfortable around her family: Grandpa (Kip Niven); her father, Duncan (Charles Fugate); and her mother, Margaret (Vanessa Severo). She soon feels the first fumbling of another's affection in the presence of Tam (Doogin Brown), a sweet kid whose only flaw may be his hobby of killing the seals that come ashore.

There's palpable friction between Elin's parents that is gradually explained in fascinating ways. At one point, Duncan removes a seal pelt from a secret hiding place and holds it to his face like it's a perfumed letter from an old lover. In a way, it is; it once belonged to Margaret, a former Selkie whom Duncan spotted one night 16 years ago and took as his wife. Elin doesn't realize she's half-Selkie, however, and sees only shame in her own seal-like hands. In a scene that throbs with potential violence, Duncan suggests slicing Elin's fingers apart, a gesture that would, he believes, keep his secret safe and remedy his daughter's pain. It's a tense moment made more so by the mournful sounds of crying seals, hauntingly rendered by sound designer Paul Binkley.

As much as Elin is in thrall to Tam, she's drawn more to the sea -- it's literally in her DNA. When she's brought face to face with two Selkies (Magdalene T. Vick and Akilah Knight), Elin seems to lose control of everything that has kept her relatively complacent about living in this purgatory. In Stubblefield's superbly layered performance, Elin becomes like any curious teenager, compelled to experience something taboo. By the close of the play, after almost losing her life, she finds peace with the one she had. Should the play end up becoming wildly popular, I can see Elin joining the ranks of classic teenage heroines.

Brooks is a wonderful writer, and Copeland is a welcome addition to the Coterie's list of directors, but I think they've made a terrible mistake toward the end. In exploring the play's back story, they've muddied the show's rhythm and sense of magic with stagecraft out of some science-fiction play. Margaret's Selkie self narrates a sequence with voice distortion like that of a cartoon giant or the blustery Wizard of Oz. It's distracting and periodically unintelligible; it made me angry that I was losing some of the story that had, to that point, been so skillfully spun. (The Coterie's management says it plans to alter the distortions or lose them completely.)

Overall, though, the production earns high marks for a cast and design crew that prod us to suspend disbelief about seals that turn into humans. Local artist Russell Ferguson's set of rocks and thatched reeds is painted with patterns that would look equally at home on African mud cloth, and Georgianna Londre's costume design is among her best work. The family's earthiness is communicated by neutral corduroy and thick wool, and the Selkie costumes look as sleek to the touch as real seals. When the actors shed them to reveal body suits color-coordinated to the actors' skin tones, their vulnerability is neatly emphasized.

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