For Americans who know British playwright Richard Bean only for his hit Broadway farce One Man, Two Guvnors, his 2003 drama Under the Whaleback is quite a shock — and should have theater companies rushing to read his many other plays. The East Hull native’s drama about his city’s once-thriving fishing industry receives a stunning Wilma Theater North American premiere.
In three scenes, each years apart, director Blanka Zizka’s production explores ordinary fishermen’s lives coping with dangerous seas, complicated relationships, and stultifying boredom. One legendary fisherman, Cassidy (who “could find fish in a fuckin’ farmyard,” we hear) — who’s played masterfully by Pearce Bunting, but also discussed throughout — epitomizes the glories and miseries of the men who spent more than 40 weeks a year at sea, then tried to cram a semblance of normal life into their brief shore time.
The entire play takes place under the whaleback, the raised bow of a large sidewinder trawler’s deck, which provided a windbreak for on-deck work and housed the crew quarters. Set designer Matt Saunders and sound designer Daniel Perelstein build a feeling of being at sea, then create a harrowing North Atlantic storm in the second scene: The boat, an open shell on the Wilma’s stage, pitches violently on hydraulics, while the sea’s perfectly coordinated wave crashes are felt as well as heard. As usual, the Wilma uses its considerable resources creatively, but not gratuitously; we vividly experience the crew’s growing fear and dread on their third day without food, water, or work as they wait out the storm.
Under the Whaleback isn’t just about the conditions, though — Zizka’s smart, sensitive direction reveals the people, and a strong cast brings this fragmented play’s three scenes to life. In the first, set in 1965, Cassidy schools a new teenage sailor Darrel, played by Brian Ratcliffe, in a gritty encounter that soars despite the necessary exposition that plants the seeds for the play’s explosive climax. “Those that can swim,” Cassidy bluntly instructs, “are only prolongin’ the agony.” Ocean fishing, even more dangerous than mining, isn’t a job Cassidy expects to retire from.
Seven years later, Darrel relies on Cassidy’s lessons during that dreadful storm, while other sailors — particularly disintegrating Norman, played by Keith Conallen — struggle to cope. Norman’s loyal friend Roc (Ed Swidey) and salty old-timer Bill (H. Michael Walls) are trapped with Norman and Darrel under the whaleback, where their conversation ranges from the hilarious (like an absurd debate about what constitutes an orgy) to the shocking emotional nakedness of men facing imminent death. Their claustrophobia, intensified by the waves crashing and the ship rolling, is profoundly poignant.
Thirty years later, in 2002, the fishing boom has gone bust. Darrel — now played by Bunting — stocks a museum ship with folksy mannequins romanticizing the brutal shipboard conditions we just experienced. Twitchy Pat — played by Conallen, for reasons that tie into the play’s intense revelations — arrives to confront Darrel about the seafaring father he never knew. Past and present collide in two extraordinary performances, all the more impressive for being the second characters vividly crafted by these two skilled actors.
Their encounter’s raw emotional and physical violence surprisingly leads to more thoughtful considerations when a representative of the next generation of seafarers — Gaby Bradbury as Darrel’s youngest daughter — appears. Can these people continue to survive by fishing? Can they feel alive without it? With implications extending far beyond Hull’s history to contemporary economic shifts in our country, Under the Whaleback makes these seemingly foreign issues real and personal.
Through April 7, $10-$54, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.