Friday, May 14, 2004

Swimming in ecstasy: Women and the Sea a trophy catch

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Free at last. This is how some women feel when they encounter the sea. And this is how audiences should feel when they encounter Women and the Sea. Anita Stewart and Portland Stage Company have done something important here.

Stewart, with playwright Shelley Berc, interviewed dozens of Maine women in their research for this show. These stories — of 17 women and two girls — are not just of women and girls, however, but of a community of fishermen (both male and female), their friends, and their families.

It is this play, filled with joy and heartbreak, wonder and worry, which Portland Stage should use as a model for its future endeavors. Why dilly dally around with the safe comedies and fan-favorites when it can produce something as truly special as Women and the Sea.

While many of PSC’s recent shows have lacked excitement and passion, Women and the Sea has that special something. It’s a new work, directed by one of its creators (Stewart), with all the color and energy newness can bring to a piece. There are no audience or actor preconceptions, no way "it’s always been done."

From its beginning, with silhouettes speaking from amid the waves, to the dockside tales and dual climaxes, this play has what PSC needs to find for all its shows.

In the creation of this work, figure not just Stewart, whose clear vision for the performance comes through powerfully, and Berc, whose writing skills keep what is essentially an action-less drama moving. The six actors on stage each night imbue their characters with real and palpable life. Each of the 19 characters — actors plays at least two, with three playing four people — is fascinating in her own way, and has her voice clearly heard.

Some of them — like aquaculture scientist Evelyn (Amy Staats) — are hilarious and well played, with nerdy dramatic pauses where the audience is meant to fill in the space with pithy remarks, but can find only laughter. Others, like Carol (Nicola Sheara) the Irish clam-digger, are hilarious but serve to remind us how many people find their calling in life only by accident. And still others, like Shirley (Moira Driscoll), are understated and reserved, but magical all the same.

The passions of life bubble from each of them, churning the emotional sea into a raging storm that calms into a placid lake before again getting rocky.

This is not a play about women, though it is through their eyes that we learn of the sea and the fishing life. Linda Greenlaw (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis) reminds us women who go out to sea in boats also prefer to be called "fishermen." The struggles of the seafaring life, and of their families back on land, are the same whether the captain is a man or a woman.

Fishing policy problems, government incompetence, bad luck, abusive relationships, and poor judgment are explored as fully and fairly as the triumphs and pleasures of working on or near the sea. Tears flow as freely as laughter, at the humanity of tragedy and of silly ignorance. It is as much a story of endurance as it is a requiem for times gone by. Fishing, these women confess angrily, is on its last legs in Maine, in part thanks to the governmental regulations that try to sustain it.

The closeness of the community is also made apparent, in the choice of several women who all know each other, and can therefore tell parts of each other’s stories. While the aftermath of the Julie N spill introduces this approach, it is taken full advantage of in the retelling of the loss of the Two Friends, which sank off Cape Neddick in January 2000.

This is where the threads begin to come together. In the first act, the line was reeled out, as the women told their own tales and began to relate to each other. (On the stage the group forms a mini-audience for each speaker.)

In the second act, especially as the Two Friends is caught at sea in a storm, Yuberquis (Viellieu-Davis) begins, but breaks down, still consumed by grief. Into the breach step her friends, Susan (Molly Powell) and Debbie (Sheara), to take up the story. With almost no props, no boat, and no visual image to go on but those in their heads, they paint a terrifying portrait of the last night two men ever spent on the water, and of the women on the shore.

Women and the Sea
Written by Shelley Berc and Anita Stewart. Directed by Anita Stewart. With Nora Daly, Moira Driscoll, Molly Powell, Amy Staats, Rebecca Stevens, Nicola Sheara, and Brigitte Viellieu-Davis. At Portland Stage Company, through May 23. Call (207) 774-0465.


The Center Stage Players, a theater company for older adults, will give an informal "chamber theater" performance of Different Paths, a new one-act by Edith Hazard of Topsham. The performance, a follow-up to a staged reading of the play, will be on Saturday, May 22, at 1 p.m., at the 55 Plus Center, in Brunswick. Admission is by donation. For reservations and further information, call (207) 729-0757.

• Concord, New Hampshire, playwright Doug Dolcino’s play Monument was given a reading by Generic Theater regulars Betsy Kimball, Helen Brock, Nancy Pearson, Alan Huisman, Steve Erickson, and Bruce Allen on Tuesday. The play is a broad-ranging spectacle about the possible future, including a civil engineer who redesigns civilization, an Orwellian postal inspector, and a wide spectrum of possible influences.