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Ahoy, Abel Brown!

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 25, 2012

Tyler Grimes is a born storyteller. My first experience with his work was earlier this year, when he was still a senior at NYU, and he invited me to see his professional indie debut play, Transylvania Beach, Kentucky, at The Red Room. I was enormously impressed by this horror-themed anthology of macabre tales (so much so that I published it on Indie Theater Now). And now Tyler has a new play, Ahoy, Abel Brown!, and it couldn't be more different from his earlier one, except in one important way: it's a gripping, engaging, and splendidly human drama, populated with vivid characters and told with humor and depth that belie the playwright's young age (just 22!)

Ahoy, Abel Brown! is inspired by actual events—the proliferation of Asian carp in Lake Michigan, and the resultant damage to the area's fishing industry. (Here's a recent news item about this situation; Tyler says he first learned about this troubling problem in biology class.) The play takes place in a small town in Indiana or Illinois on the Calumet River, where Raul Curry runs a fishing boat. The carp, which feed voraciously on the other fish in the area, are starting to take a serious toll on Raul's business. Stymied by the local authorities' apparent unwillingness to do anything to solve the problem, Raul decides to take matters in his own hands, teaming with another fisherman, Mike Lockerbie, to try to destroy the carps' nests.

This is simply the inciting incident, and while the socioeconomic issues provide the play both weight and context, the real meat of the drama comes from Grimes' exploration of Raul and his crew and their relationships with their wives. Raul is married to Mary, a beautiful and rather formidable woman who announces to him in the play's first scene that she's just become pregnant. The four men who serve on Raul's ship are Howell, a veteran of more than 40 years on the water; twin brothers Ace and Boo Demes, who are steadfast and loyal but also a bit immature and not the brightest bulbs on the tree; and Bill Westbrook, a young ex-Marine with a violent streak (other characters repeatedly refer to him as a "savage"). Bill and Raul are constantly at odds, but they clearly have respect for one another. And the women in the play—Mary and the Demes twins' wives Erin and Erica—are certainly aware of Bill's magnetic personality and good looks.

Most of the action of Ahoy, Abel Brown! depicts the days leading up to Raul's desperate (and probably illegal) effort to eliminate the carp. As in any good sailor yarn, it happens on a wild and stormy night, and the atmosphere is tense. I'll leave it for you to discover how the exciting tale unfolds; I was not at all disappointed by the action's jolts and turns. And I was definitely surprised by the resolution: this play turns out to be about something quite different and quite unexpected, and catches you off-guard, in spite of yourself. (Note that Ahoy, Abel Brown! is also published on Indie Theater Now, and you can read an excerpt—and indeed the entire play—here.)

This fine play is the debut production for Distilled Theatre Company, a new troupe founded by co-artistic directors Lisha Brown (who staged this production) and Liz Regan (who plays Erin; an excellent performance). Brown has chosen a naturalistic style, with scenes realized with realistic and detailed sets and props, that may not be strictly necessary (the transitions definitely slow down the momentum). She's directed her actors beautifully, though, with standouts, in addition to Regan, being Katherine Leigh as Erica, Benjamin John Burbidge as the charismatic and slightly enigmatic Bill, and Alexander McCarty and Morgan Lever as the Demes brothers. John Lavigne's sound design evokes the river and the small town very effectively.

I'm impressed by Distilled's inaugural presentation. And I'm proud to be publishing Tyler Grimes' work, and excited to follow him as he grows as a playwright and theater artist.