Kin Craft, and The Sea

29 Jan

Reviewed by R.J. Stanchfield after the grand opening of the 

Bay Street Theater Festival 


When walking down Main Street in Sag Harbor, if you have any sensitivity, you will feel the history, its people, and its ghosts who still cannot go to rest. 

     They whisper to you "look back; look back I tell you!"

     You couldn’t help looking back the day the ultra-modern Other Woman tied up at our wharf.  In the context of its old setting, this super state-of-the-art sailing vessel strangely conjured up the Lucy.  The Lucy, a big brigantine, symbolized the port of Sag Harbor as a shelter for the whaling fleet, a sanctuary for relationships among kin, craft, and the sea.

     Our surging sea, written, sung and talked about, is the elusive master feature of this region.  Its heart, captured by Melville’s Billy Budd and Billy Joel’s Downeaster Alexa, gushes with life. Old timers are sought out to spin their tales down at the foot of Main Street. 

     Maybe all this had something to do with Sybil Christopher, Emma Walton, and Steve Hamilton’s decision to open their theatre down at the foot of Main Street. 

     Maybe all of this had something to do with Sybil, Emma, and Steve’s decision to open with the performance of Men’s Lives, first Peter Matthiessen’s brilliant, now Joe Pintauro’s magnificent, labor of love.

     It may not be just coincidental the setting of the theatre itself, like the play, is spirited by the same salty seawater, steps from the front door on our Long Wharf.  Whatever it was that provoked the maiden voyage to be about the lives of local fishermen, you get the feeling it was somehow taken out of the hands of the three originators and put into the hands of some great providence of sea and theatre.

     Although individual brilliance is in all aspects of the production, each hand that had a part was seemingly guided by some other prime power. You also get the feeling the play’s subject, an archetypal Bonacker family who makes its living by haul seining, could just as easily have been an Acadian family in Nova Scotia no longer able to go scaling. 

     The streets of Eastport, Maine, a one-time repository for passing French Canadian ships are almost empty on this hot summer day.

     The consequences of tragedy are always the same. 

     Consider Joe Pintauro’s primary, daring and brave deviation from Matthiessen by making a woman the central character of Men’s Lives.  The part was given to Sloane Shelton, the first of many thieves who would steal the show back and forth from the others, almost on a line-by-line basis. 

     Her first motherly blow comes soon after the curtain rises as Nat, her youngest, played very well by newcomer Michael Downing, is lost when the dory he’s in capsizes. Forgetting to take off his waders, they fill with water, as he’s sucked down to eternity.

     Bounding back as she must, Ms. Shelton, playing the mother Alice, ties the local and spiritual geography together by proclaiming, “my people from down Sag Harbor are whalers, captains of ships,” stirring her detached husband to remember with her.

     Walt, her husband, played by Alan North, is at one in his waders, a fisherman ready to accept the inevitable, even if it means his own death, which eventually proved correct. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre when Lee, the eldest son played by Jay Patterson, tenderly told his mother of dad’s sad death.  The overwhelming starkness of death’s finality burst through the new playhouse.

     But Lee isn’t so tender with his friend, the up-Streeter Pete (Matthiesson), the chronicler of these men’s lives, who is played by Mark Blum. Lee loved his drinking and sometimes fighting buddy and hated him for his impotence in the face of the looming legislation that would terminate Lee’s livelihood.  Lee mocks Peter for being sensitive to the “eyes” of a yellow-fin tuna, which escaped the harpoon’s point when Peter hesitated. 

     Lee is really mocking the hypocrisy of every sports angler. 

     Still, it’s hard to accept sport’s argument in the wake of hundreds of thousands of shark carcass’ that lay hidden beneath the big blue, maligned in the media and then killed in the name of sport.  It’s even harder to stomach the gallons of Budweiser vomited over the sides of boats by sea-sick, weekend fun seekers who, as the play’s character Chuck says, “never eat fish... don’t like ‘em.”

     Chuck, purposely more a characterization than a character, is nature’s nutritious answer to cyclical living and dying.

     Because of Chuck, or in spite of Chuck, death came to Lee, and it happened to Popeye, Lee’s mate, played by David Eigenberg.  Drinking too much beer the men/boys negligently take the dory out in the rain, wind and choppy surf.  The dory’s destiny was not far offshore.  The two drunken fishermen went over.  The last gasps of the foolish but endearing Popeye had everyone in the theatre holding their breath, hoping against hope, as Popeye did, but it was of the last muted scream that came through loud and clear to the audience.  Once again death reigned.

     William, the last living Bonacker son, played by Jack Hannibal, is also the last hope in the long line of haul seiners.  After the death of his brother, he packed his bags and went out to trade school.  As the play ends, William returns.  The audience is told William goes back to the sea, but only part-time and then he mows lawns or maybe becomes an auto mechanic.

     The play was smooth.  Topped by Chris Smith’s direction, along with Susan Goulet’s technical guidance and Denise Yaney’s stage management, it made the less than a week-old production seem like it was in its second season. 

     Precisely cast by Sarah Heming, the characters are sharply costumed by Sharon Sprague, who dressed the actors down rather than up.  Each player could have left the stage, walked up Main Street, gone in for a beer somewhere and no one would have given a second look.

     Tony Walton’s set is sandy as it should be.  A vestige of a wooden ship is centered and used at various times during the ninety-minute production as a house, a dory or a pulpit for the storyteller Peter.  But mostly it is symbolic of the last stage of something, something the audience hopes will not be the baymen.  Michael Lincoln’s lighting design was judicious in its simplicity, capturing, for instance, a moon-shadow on a shack’s floor.

     The theatre itself, designed by architect Mary O’Connor, seemed to be made exclusively for a production like Men’s Lives.  It is the perfect theatre for Sag Harbor too.

     There is a universal precept here.

     The Village of Sag Harbor has always been blessed with the sea. Now the Village of Sag Harbor is further endowed with the Theatre Festival. But before we get caught up in the high emotion of this beautiful and new enterprise let’s not forget to act on our gut feelings. We should acknowledge what brought us here in the first place. Fate is telling us a tradition has been initiated.  It should be carried on each year; Men’s Lives should be performed at the Bay Street Theatre Festival like the Nutcracker is presented annually in Bridgehampton

     The Theatre Festival can deeply touch all the people who come here. Men’s Lives has left a deep emotional mark on all those who have seen it to date.  Even though every show was a sell-out, not enough people have seen it. It is a remarkable story, which must be told over and over again.

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