By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Long ago, before Emperor Jones, before Iceman, before Long Day’s Journey, before the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes, before the work that made Eugene O’Neill the granddaddy of American drama, he was a sad young man, down on his luck, who shipped out as a merchant seaman. That rough, hard-drinking, vagabond life yielded what are known as The Sea Plays and two of them, Bound East for Cardiff and In the Zone are PAC’s Fringe contribution—giving us a chance to see a superb production of these rarely performed one-acts.
And to see them aboard the Tall Ship Gazela! If there were an award for Best Fringe Venue, this show would get it, especially on a clear, moonlit night with the Ben Franklin Bridge providing a beautiful backdrop.
Bound East for Cardiff is about a sailor (the fine John Lopes) who is dying after a bad fall; his sadness as he looks back at his life is very touching, and he delivers a line that will echo through the O’Neill canon to come: “It must be great to have a home of your own.” His shipmates gather round as his friend (the excellent Brian McCann) grieves.
In In the Zone, a ship carrying ammunition enters the warzone, and the crew is jumpy. They suspect a shipmate (Brian Ratcliffe) and proceed to invent a story about his treachery; the point here is the tension O’Neill creates as we wait for the reveal, just as we wait in the first play for the death.
The two short plays, seamlessly performed in an hour in the deep wooden bowels of this historic and handsome sailing vessel, are immensely helped by the authenticity of the setting. And, with a cast of excellent actors (outstanding are David Blatt and Keith Conallen) under the inventive direction of Damon Bonetti, this is a theatre experience that is both moving and engrossing.
PAC (Philadelphia Artists’ Collective) at The Tall Ship Gazela, docked$ at Penn's Landing, near Market Street and Columbus Boulevard. Tickets $15-20. Through Sept.23.