Tales of the whale—the commercial treasure and leviathan of the sea—and the sailors who set out in wooden ships to hunt them, are endlessly fascinating. Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” stands as one of the great adventure stories of world literature.
A story that inspired Melville is being staged now by Shattered Globe Theatre in the exciting adventure/survival play, “The Whaleship Essex” by Joe Forbrich. The two-hour-plus drama is staged with meticulous attention to nautical detail through the use of lighting, projections and simple wooden benches that serve as the whaleboats in which the whalemen leave the ship to capture whales. Or survive a shipwreck, as the case may be.
Veteran director Lou Contey skillfully orchestrates a cast of 15 through the story, which begins in 1850 in Nantucket, Mass., an island off the coast of Cape Cod and the center of the whaling industry. The brief 1850 scene establishes the main story line about the Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket in August 1819 on what was to be a three-year voyage. It was never seen again. The play tells the true story of the ship that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in the southern Pacific Ocean. The aftermath, in which the battered ship sinks and the sailors fight for survival, is the main thread of the story.
The play opens with a framing scene in which a man (Joseph Wiens) and his wife (Bridget Schreiber) arrive at Nantucket to settle in. They meet the proprietor of a boarding house (Ben Werling). It seems that both men are writers and former whaling men. The proprietor tells them of the story he has been trying to write—the same story that the man wants to research in Nantucket. The proprietor shipped out as a young boy with the Whaleship Essex. As he begins to tell his tale, there’s a blackout and seamen appear on the two-level stage to prepare the ship to launch.
The proprietor becomes an occasional narrator as the story progresses. The man becomes first mate Owen Chase. The wife, however, is left to sit at the side of the stage with nothing to do. A note to the playwright and director here. This seems to me a weak point of the staging. The woman sitting at side stage observing, sometimes highlighted, is odd in itself. The proprietor’s narrative part is not strong not is Werling’s performance. (I kept wanting him to turn into a whaling version of Larry the Liquidator from his great performance in Shattered Globe’s “Other People’s Money”.) The play could stand alone with the plot of the voyage of the Essex itself. I know, I know, introducing the man as a writer at the beginning allows you to end the play with a punch line, but perhaps there’s a better way to do this.
The early part of the play retells the voyage as the Essex sails down the western coast of South America, where the crew captures and harvests a whale. The crew shows the hard work needed to harvest the whale meat and oil. However, this fishing ground turns out to be fished out. While they are anchored to fix a serious leak in the Essex, other whalers tell them of a new fishing ground in the southern Pacific. Despite the great distance and after an argument about the direction to proceed, they set out. The attack by a giant whale is staged with sound and fury. The crew grabs what supplies they can from the foundering Essex and sets out in the small whaleboats. Their survival ordeal lasts for several months, during which many are lost. Starvation, sun and thirst take a toll on all and we learn what humans will do to survive.
The team of set designer Ann Davis, lighting designer Shelley Strasser Holland, projection designer Michael Stanfill, and sound designer J. J. Porterfield do an excellent job of integrating the physical sights and sounds of the sea.
There is some strong acting among the large cast. Wiens is excellent as the sadistic first mate Chase (one of the survivors who later writes an account of the voyage). Brad Woodard is believable as Captain Pollard, a decent man in command for the first time, and so is Darren Jones as the bible-reading seaman Peterson. Two young seamen played by Drew Schadt and Antonio Zhiurinskas do particularly strong jobs.
“Nantucket lights the world,” one character proclaims. The whaling industry was fueled by the need for oil to light lamps. Late in the play, the actors lament the irony of chasing after the oil in the sea. “To think of all the wasted lives in search of oil upon the sea, when it was in our backyards all along!” Pennsylvania was known for its “oil seeps” and petroleum beneath its land surfaces in the late 18th century.
Forbrich, a founding Shattered Globe ensemble member, is also a sailor and a boatbuilder. He first heard the story of the Essex during the summer of 2008 when he was acting at the Vineyard Playhouse in Massachusetts and apprenticing as a boatbuilder. The play had a reading in New York and premiered in June at the Vineyard Playhouse.
“The Whaleship Essex” by Shattered Globe Theatre continues at Theater Wit through October 11. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30 and can be bought online or by calling 773-975-8150.
This review was previously posted on gapersblock.com/ac/.