Young Katy can summon a huge band at the tip of her fingers: mandolin, piano, strings, horns — they all join in, one after the other, and make a catchy racket. And yet there are only two musicians by her side, deftly triggering loops and samples. That is one of the many beauties of “We Live by the Sea”: It creates an expansive world out of seemingly little.
Devised by the London-based company Patch of Blue, this small gem of a play introduces us to an unconventional, loving family consisting of two teenage sisters and (maybe) a dog in a beach town. At just 18, Hannah (Alexandra Simonet) has had to drop out of school to look after 15-year-old Katy (Alexandra Brain), who is on the autism spectrum. We learn their mother decamped after learning of the diagnosis, and dad died a year earlier. Now it’s just the girls and Katy’s imaginary emotional-support best friend, Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace), a “Jack Russell slash St. Bernard.” Katy and Paul Williams are such an indivisible unit, they say “we” instead of “I” and communicate in their own language.
The show (a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and now at 59E59 Theaters after a weeklong run at SoHo Playhouse in 2016) toggles between two perspectives. Sometimes we see the world through Katy, and sometimes we get an outsider look at the sisters via their new neighbor, Ryan (Tom Coliandris), a gentle 18-year-old who just moved from London. As with all of the key background details, the reason is organically revealed over the course of the show.
The tricky part, of course, is to let us share the way Katy experiences life, and Ms. Brain is crucial here. Her warmly empathetic performance never feels “acty,” even when Katy freaks out and lets out shrieks that are equal parts bloodcurdling and heartbreaking. (The other cast members are just as good in relatively more straightforward roles.)
The director, Alex Howarth, does not have the means of the Broadway hit “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” about the sleuthing adventures of an autistic boy. But he did come up with a tight, imaginative staging, doing wonders, for instance, with simple projections of home-movie-like footage on a triangular sail. (Will Monks did the video design.) The Mason Brothers’ score, performed live by Josh Flowers and Julianna Zachariou, also helps us understand Katy’s rapidly changing moods — her meltdowns are accompanied by a screechy cacophony, for instance.
“We Live by the Sea” is concerned with how these extraordinary circumstances can be so ordinary: how the calm, weary Hannah and Katy, who is simultaneously very literal and very imaginative, go on about their routine-driven life, and how Ryan shakes them up.