Thursday, July 25, 2013

Gloucester Stage Company Repackages "North Shore Fish" by Israel Horovitz

Inspector Shimma ( Therese Plaehn) inspects the product at North Shore Fish 
as the girls on the line and Porker (Thomas Phillip O'Neill) look on.
Photo by Gary Ng

Gloucester Stage Company continues to reach out to the community that spawned it.  In its latest production, the theater revisits a play originally written in the 1980's by founding Artistic Director and acclaimed playwright Israel Horovitz.  The troubles that plague Gloucester's fishing industry today began  to raise their head several decades ago, and Horovitz tackled those issues in writing "North Shore Fish." A small and struggling fish processing plant - smaller than Gorton's - is fighting for its life. It has fallen so low that it has been relegated  to repackaging fish that have already been processed elsewhere.  Within the broad arc of the play's action, the women who work the line are fighting with each other, with their randy male supervisor, and with the economic forces that threaten to strip them of their livelihood and their dignity.

The play and its themes are as a relevant to Cape Ann - and beyond - today as they were when it was written in 1986 and received a Pulitzer Prize nomination.  Like the author Studs Terkel in his classic book "Working," Horovitz manages to cut to the quick with his incisive examination of the hour-by-hour and day-to-day life of the working class women and men of "North Shore Fish."  The dialogue among the characters is spot on, and reminds me eerily of the conversations I listened to with fascination when I was a young lab technician surrounded by a sea of women lab techs at Gloucester's Addison Gilbert Hospital.  Technologies may change like the tide, but human nature remains moored pretty much where it has always been.  We still struggle with issues of failed marriages, tension-filled parent-child relationships, petty jealousies and infidelities, financial brinkmanship, living pay check to pay check, and dashed dreams.

Under the skillful direction of Robert Walsh, the cast is superb in creating the feel of a dysfunctional family of working class laborers who support each other as best they can in the midst of squabbling and sometimes physical fisticuffs.  The Gloucester accents are flawless - not any easy feat to accomplish.  This ensemble interprets Horovitz's brilliant script in a way that presents each character as believable and sympathetic with no hint of denigrating stereotyping.  As an audience member, I found myself caring about the fate of each character - even the less likable ones.  That speaks to good writing and good acting.

Let's take a look at the cast.

Alfred "Porker" Martino is portrayed perfectly by Thomas Phillip O'Neill as the underachieving and good-hearted janitor at North Shore Fish.  The play opens with him symbolically mopping the plant floor. Porker spends much of the rest of the play trying to "mop up" other people's messes - both ecological and relational.  

Florence Rizzo is played with great gusto by Aimee Doherty.  Rizzo is a second generation employee of the firm that has just laid off her mother.  Her sense of betrayal and impending disaster is palpable in her speech and in the way she carries herself.  She is also sleeping with the married supervisor, Salvatore, and carrying his child.  Complications ensue!

Arlyne Flynn (Nancy E. Carroll) is the Earth Mother of the place, having sat at the production line through good times and bad.  In her hairnet and her constant badgering of Salvatore to stop his sewer mouth from swearing, she glistens with hard-earned dignity.  She seems as if she just arrived on the bus from "down Riverdale" to put in one more shift at the factory that has been her life and has also stolen much of her life.  Carroll's character is the spiritual center of the shop and of the show.  She is simply magnificent in this role.

Ruthie Flynn (Brianne Beatrice) is Arlyne's daughter - another generation of indentured servitude.  She is ten months pregnant, and tempted to fire her OB/GYN, Dr. Benoit, for getting the due date wrong!  Her pregnancy finally ends when she gives birth at the factory, symbolizing many things.  Among the symbols is the implication that even at the moment when we learn the factory has been sold and will be converted to a fitness center, life goes on, and a new generation comes along to continue the climb up the treadmill! Another symbol of Beatrice's bravura performance as Ruthie is that each of the workers at North Shore Fish is engaged in a long and exhausting struggle and the long-awaited reward refuses to be born.

Salvatore "Sally" Morella (Lowell Byers) is the supervisor, struggling to keep business coming in the door, struggling to keep his "girls" in line and struggling to keep in check his amorous attraction for anyone wearing a hairnet.  Byers is skillful in depicting a deeply conflicted man - locked into a forced marriage when he got his girlfriend pregnant when he was only seventeen.  He is simultaneously charming - with a Cheshire Cat grin - and pathetic as the unfaithful husband who can't keep his pants zipped up for five minutes.

Josie Evangelista (Marianna Armitstead) has never met a cannoli she did not love, and is grieving over the fact that her husband has walked out on her because she is so fat.  This is a tough roll to play without crossing the line into "camp," but Armitstead pulls it off smoothly.  I cared about Josie and whether she would sneak another Snickers bar before continuing her work on the line.  Her hunger runs deep - a craving for love and meaning in her life.

Maureen Vega (Erin Brehm) and Marlena Vega (Esme Allen) are cousins.  Maureen is introducing Marlena to the routine of working the line so that her cousin can be her temporary replacement when  Maureen takes a much needed vacation to the exotic shores of Connecticut.  The introduction of a new worker when Rizzo's mother has been laid off creates tension that grows throughout the show. Ms. Allen in her portrayal of Marlena raises gum chewing to an art form and firmly establishes her character through a marathon session of working her jaw.  Ms. Brehm is equally convincing as someone whose world is so narrow that the prospect of an escape to a neighboring New England state holds the same promise that a world cruise might for someone with broader aspirations.

Catherine Shimma (Therese Plaehn) rounds out the cast of characters.  As the government inspector for the plant, she is mostly sequestered in her office/laboratory, often observing the shenanigans that are going on among the workers on the plant floor.  In a sense, it is a reverse fishbowl effect.  She is inside the fishbowl of the office observing the migratory patterns of the school of fish swimming in their ocean of boredom, bickering and fish packing.

Horovitz has one of the characters talk about a book she is reading in an effort to better herself.  She describes the process by which fish eggs are fertilized - free floating in the ocean as the sperm is injected. This image becomes a metaphor for the fish plant workers and other denizens of Cape Ann.  In fact, when they learn that the male fish never stick around to see their offspring be hatched or to help raise them, one of the "girls" quips, "Sounds like most of the fathers in Gloucester!"

Horovitz clearly cares deeply enough about the plight of the fish workers to craft this moving play. Gloucester Stage Company clearly cares enough about the struggles of its community to mount this third "repackaged" production of "North Shore Fish."  The director and actors clearly care enough about the subject matter and about their craft to present sympathetic and utterly believable characters in a well told story.  The audience that I was part of clearly was moved at the plight of these hard scrabble characters.  So, it should be clear that you should plan to move yourself to East Gloucester between now and August 4th to experience this drama for yourself.


+     +     +     +     +     +     +     +

No comments: