The Brutal Realities of Life at Sea in The Wilma’s UNDER THE WHALEBACK

The Wilma Theater’s North American premiere of UNDER THE WHALEBACK provides a well-researched account of the coarse and perilous lives of English fishermen on the North Sea during the period of the industry’s decline in the second half of the twentieth century. Playwright Richard Bean, who experienced the sub-culture firsthand in his native Hull, gives a disturbing glimpse at the bleak situation through three acts spanning 37 years (1965-2002), with a frank realism that is difficult to watch, and crude humor that is as much sad as funny.

An impressive set design by Matt Saunders recreates the type of fishing vessel on which the men lived and died, bonded and brawled, in claustrophobic confinement on rough and icy waters for the 40 out of 52 weeks a year when they were at sea. Set in the middle of a dark stage that conjures the open ocean, the erratic movements of a storm-tossed ship are simulated by an effective hydraulic system and accentuated by Allen Hahn’s dramatic lighting and Daniel Perelstein’s convincing sound.

Director Blanka Zizka, who, in preparation for the production, visited Hull and spoke with retired fishermen, fully embraces the play’s authenticity and in no way minimizes the vulgarity, or the tragedy, of this dangerous occupation or the harshness of the men’s isolated existence. Her excellent ensemble portrays the characters as brutish men behaving badly, going stir-crazy, and making their desperate lives even worse by perpetuating generation after generation of illegitimacy, violence, drunkenness, and mental instability, and by their generally hardened treatment of women, who are seen only as naked pin-ups in their cramped cabin, or referenced mainly as the mothers of their misbegotten children, left to fend for themselves.

The production’s casting is spot-on, with uncanny characterizations by Pearce Bunting as the legendary Cassidy, a drunken antihero who always has a story to tell; Keith Conallen as the crazed Norman and even scarier Pat; Ross Beschler as the brooding and solitary Bagnall; and H. Michael Walls as the old salt Bill (“Ha!”). Brian Ratcliffe as the young Darrel offers brief glimmers of hope as he reads the classics in his spare time, but can never truly escape his destiny. And Ed Swidey as the gentle giant Roc, whose 6’ 4” frame barely fits into his bunk, and who marks the time with the incessant clicking of his cigarette lighter, brings a touch of kindness and humanity to the boorish crew with his admirable but futile paternal instincts towards Darrel and the woman back home that he plans to marry.

UNDER THE WHALEBACK’s shockingly violent conclusion (with some all too obvious metaphors) remains true to the overall mood of hopelessness, offering no happy ending or uplifting moral, just utter despair and no end in sight for the future generation, with the demise of the fishing industry and the resultant economic devastation of the region.