The Honor and Glory of Whaling
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 29, 2007
There is a good deal to admire in The Forty Hour Club's compelling but uneven production of Michael Gorman's The Honor and Glory of Whaling. This play is the second in a trilogy about addiction among commercial fisherman (UltraLight, which premiered back in 2000, was the first part), and Gorman's passion for and dedication to the importance of the story he's telling is impressive. Gorman lost a brother to such an addiction (as he explains in this nytheatre voices interview); the protagonist of this play, Robbie Foerster, is the captain of a fishing boat in New England who falls prey to heroin.
The play begins with several terrific quick, impressionistic scenes that provide some of the back story for Robbie and the other main characters. We first meet Robbie as a boy on a playground, with his pals Johnny and Theresa, pretending to be on a fishing boat reeling in the biggest halibut ever. Robbie's dad is a fisherman, but for reasons the boy doesn't understand (and that won't be revealed until the final scene), he has become emotionally distant from his son and a mean alcoholic.
Meanwhile, somewhere else in the United States, we meet Guy and Maria. Smart and introspective, Guy is different from the other boys in his town because he likes to read, but his true love is fishing, and in a couple of scenes in which we see the progression of his relationship with Maria, we learn that he is going to skip college and instead move east to Haversport (the same town where Robbie lives) to become a commercial fisherman. Guy of course ends up working for Robbie as his First Mate. Guy's desire to experience the world continually on the edge has already led him to drugs; his addictions and Robbie's become focal points for Gorman here as the story of their voyages on Robbie's boat the Northern Star is played out.
Problematically, although Gorman shows us the effects of both men's addictions on themselves and those around them, he doesn't sufficiently set them up. Gorman suggests that a "Captains Courageous" mentality drives the men toward drugs, but the idea really isn't explored. I would have liked much more information about how Robbie and Guy came to heroin—what specific social or economic or cultural pressures make their addictions inevitable and/or preventable?
Also troublesome is the character of Ray, the manager of a commercial fishery who apparently is also the town's drug dealer. He's introduced far too late in the story to have the impact as antagonist/villain that he ought to.
But the play is very successful in letting audiences understand the romantic lure of the sea (thanks in part to some judicious quotes from Melville). And although the staging by George Ferencz (with co-direction by Gorman and David Bennett) doesn't always effectively manage the vast depth of La MaMa's Annex space, the realization of the piece is quite spectacular. The key to the design concept is the idea that the stage floor represents the ocean, with the action restricted to planking on all sides of it plus the Northern Star itself. Marguerite White's design of the boat—which is able to "sail" around the theatre with a fair amount of majesty—is very impressive. Tim Schellenbaum's sound design is excellent, deftly conjuring the many diverse locales that the play encompasses. And Tonya Ridgeley's original music, which is performed live by Pete List and Evan Fraser, provides a rich, emotive, bluesy backdrop for the mostly tragic events depicted here.
Michael Kimball leads an uneven cast in the pivotal role of Robbie; he's quite affecting as both the sad boy of the early scenes and the troubled, proud man in Act Two. The role that Gorman has given him to play is vivid and demanding; there's an epic feel to the material that just doesn't feel fully fleshed out, though, as if the rest of the trilogy might spill around what's on stage here rather than simply precede and follow it. I will be interested in seeing the entirety of The Honor and Glory of Whaling once it's completed, and hope that Gorman is able to plumb the depths of his important subject.