BWW Review: Prize Catch: NORTH SHORE FISH at Gloucester Stage Company
North Shore Fish
Performances through August 4 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
In 1986, Gloucester Stage Company launched its present performance space, in a former Gorton's of Gloucester warehouse, with the world premiere of Founding Artistic Director Israel Horovitz's North Shore Fish. The play ran for six months before moving Off-Broadway where it was nominated for that season's Drama Desk award as Best New American Play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Nearly thirty years later, the revival remains relevant with its stark take on the condition of the local fish industry. Director Robert Walsh and the fine ensemble cast of seven women and two men inhabit the working class townies struggling to perpetuate a dying way of life, the only life they've ever known.
Although he is a son of Wakefield, Massachusetts, Horovitz is a champion for the people of Gloucester, telling the stories of his adopted hometown in a number of his plays. His writing establishes a familiar tone and pace which Walsh translates from page to stage, thanks to a group of actors who collectively "get" the local accent and seamlessly adapt to the working conditions required for the production. The playwright's stage directions explicitly call for a functional assembly line and "that all conversation is simultaneous to labor," placing arduous demands on the actors to focus on the constant task of folding and labeling boxes as they play their parts. Their ability to work the line without missing a line adds an immeasurable layer of authenticity to the portrayals, and a couple of the actresses even chew gum at the same time!
North Shore Fish shows the demise of the fishing industry and, by extension, the lives of the working women of Gloucester. The plant is not just a place of employment for them; it is their heritage and a way of life. They represent family to each other, and squabble and jockey for favor like siblings. However, the women are a formidable team and fiercely loyal to each other. As the outlook for their future becomes more ominous, they try to be strong for one another, even as they must each deal with the prospect of reinventing themselves in the face of loss of work. Horovitz focuses on the role of working women, but sensitively mixes humor and pathos to lead us to care about this group of seven and wonder how they will fare when they are no longer needed in their industry.
Aimee Doherty and Lowell Byers lead a stellar cast, most of whom are making their GSC debuts (with the exception of Nancy E. Carroll and Therese Plaehn). Doherty is the tough-talking, thick skinned, 30-something Florence Rizzo, daughter of a laid-off packer who sees the same dead end future for herself. The single mother of two children, Flo gets some kicks and minimal affection playing around with Salvatore "Sally" Morella (Byers), the good-looking plant foreman with a wife, three kids, and a serial wandering eye. Long recognized as a musical theater talent on Boston stages (most recently in the Lyric Stage Company's On the Town), Doherty impresses in this comedy-drama playing the sardonic, working class girl who turns on a dime from sex kitten to saber-toothed tiger when she sees the writing on the wall that threatens her way of life. She quietly carries the show, making her presence felt whether or not she has dialogue, yet relinquishing the spotlight when the scene is not about her character.
Byers is an incredible dramatic force as Sally, matching will and wits with Flo. Their pantomimed conversations and clinches in the upstage office draw attention regardless of the ongoing discussions on the packing room floor. You can practically see him sweat when his usual tactics fail to make any headway with Catherine Shimma (Plaehn), the steely new plant inspector, and Byers does a masterful job of transforming Sally's swagger into a thinly veiled meltdown as the truth of his powerlessness becomes evident at the denouement.
Sally's winning smile and boyish charm achieve different degrees of success with the women in his charge, but they have all known each other for most of their lives and the portrayals indicate that fact. Arlyne (Carroll) is third generation at the plant and likes to say, "We are fish people. We are doing what we were born to do." She works alongside her overdue pregnant daughter Ruthie (Brianne Beatrice) and is the group's den mother, as it were. Even Sally shows Arlyne some deference, apologizing for his foul language after an angry outburst, but she brooks no disrespect and tries to instill in the others an appreciation for their industry. This is the kind of character Carroll can play in her sleep, but her strength and dignity inform her interpretation and make Arlyne three-dimensional.
Alfred "Porker" Martino (Thomas Phillip O'Neill), the maintenance man, is not the lady-killer that Sally fancies himself to be, but he also has a history with many of the women. O'Neill is deft in peeling back the layers to show that Porker's dim, good guy demeanor serves as a front for his sadness, insecurity, and loneliness, and he brings to mind the late clown Emmett Kelly with his stubble and scruffy appearance. Porker expresses his tender side with Josie (Marianna Armitstead, dynamic in the role), a brassy, zaftig woman who uses food and sarcasm to cover the unhappiness in her marriage, but he harbors a "thing" for Flo, too. His relationship with Sally is complicated and both actors do it justice.
Maureen Vega (Erin Brehm) is unassuming, doing her job with little fanfare, and is training her cousin Marlena (Esme Allen) to fill in for her when she takes vacation. The pretty new girl infuses some conflict into the workplace relationships and Allen appears to have fun playing the instigator. Brehm draws the focus briefly near the end of the play when Maureen voices some of the emotions they're all experiencing. Plaehn successfully treads the fine line between her character's mixed emotions, letting us see Shimma's struggle to maintain her professional distance as she does her job while feeling empathy for the women who are very likely to lose theirs.
Thanks to Jenna McFarland Lord's set design and Russ Swift's lighting, the North Shore Fish processing plant materializes with the appropriate atmosphere, evoking everything but the smell of fish. Flo stirs the batter in a big, stainless steel vat, and the completed boxes move along a table with rollers to the final stations for labeling and wrapping. Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley has the women on the line wearing rubberized black aprons over grey tops and pants that resemble scrubs, and Porker's sloppy job calls for a pair of black Wellies. Sally protects his shirt, tie, and slacks with a white lab coat, occasionally topping off the look with a white hard hat. Shimma's lofty position is indicated by a white lab coat over her business skirt and blouse, and her hair is worn in a single tight braid.
This production of North Shore Fish looks and feels so authentic that someone unknowingly walking into the theater might think that they happened upon the old Gorton's plant, but their mistake would be understandable. My guess is that they'd stay to enjoy the play --- and grab some seafood on Rocky Neck after the show.