Poets and playwrights have glorified the exploits of seafaring men since Homer’s Odyssey. The Wilma Theater presents a more personal, though no less inspiring, look at this tradition in their riveting North American premiere of Richard Bean’s Under the Whaleback.
Bean’s episodic play portrays the lives of Arctic fisherman across three generations, showing a patrilineage of hardscrabble boys that live long enough to sire sons before expiring in icy underwater tombs.
We meet local fishing icon Cassidy (Pearce Bunting) in 1965; bloodied and drunk before what he hopes his last journey; he portends a certain fate with an uncertain expiration. Seven years later, Darrel (Brian Radcliffe) huddles in another hull off the stormy coast of Iceland, trying to avoid his father’s fate through the use of a survival suit. Much like Jason’s Golden Fleece, this gear offers legitimacy while acting as both protection and talisman, and later becomes a millstone that (in Act II, set 30 years after) drags down a future in which he no longer fishes, and no longer finds purpose.
Blanka Zizka’s probing direction and the efforts of a sensational cast (with a standout performance by Keith Conallen) humanize these modern mariners. They stomp on the stage all bluff and bluster, the hardened shell of boys lured to tame the tempest before finding solace in friendship and family, “all that matters,” as Darrel later tells.
Zizka’s poignant pacing trawls through themes of fathers and sons, generational conflict, and the existential isolation and despair of men figuratively and literally trapped in a hull for 40 weeks a year. Humor bristles through in rough jokes; never enough to let us forget that generations of these sailors died so that the English could eat fish and chips.
In the Wilma’s startling production, Daniel Perelman’s sound design places dozens of speakers in the aisles amidst the audience, rendering sounds of whales and barges and violent weather that call forth agonizing cries. Set on hydraulic stilts, Matt Saunders’ skeletal shell of a ship heaves and lists in the storms of Allen Hahn’s lighting; the hull creaks, sailors tumble across the deck; safe from danger, we roll with them.
Far fewer of these fragile trawlers now take to the seas for fishing, and the courageous men who manned them in their heyday exist today in reality shows or retirement. Their legend lives at the Wilma, as only a playwright could tell it.
Under the Whaleback. Presented through April 7 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $39 to $66. Information: 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org