Fish Out of Water

Among the many voices that weave in and out of Joe Pintauro's stirring Men's Lives, the drama now playing at the Pope Theatre Company in Manalapan, one in particular continues to haunt me. "Work can kill a man or keep him alive a hundred years," says Walt, a fisherman on the east end of Long Island whose ancestors settled the region in the Seventeenth Century. Over the last twenty years, however, Walt's livelihood has been crippled by encroaching development and the greed associated with a tourist economy. He's been denied the dignity of doing the work he loves and knows. And he's one among many displaced and powerless people in this country bypassed by a changing economy. Through Walt and his family, Men's Lives gives voice to such people, who otherwise would not be heard.

In the 1600s, a community of fishermen settled the South Fork of eastern Long Island. For the next 300 years, they supported their families by net-fishing in the area's plentiful ocean waters, valuing their independence and the heritage of their ancestors and of the Native Americans with whom their ancestors lived and worked. But by 1986 barely 100 full-time fishermen -- or baymen, as they are called -- were left.

Writer Peter Matthiessen worked as a commercial fisherman on the South Fork in the 1950s. Although his reputation as a writer grew and he no longer needed to fish for a living, he maintained a home and his friendships in the area. Matthiessen is considered one of the most important contemporary chroniclers of endangered environments and threatened cultures. He wrote the book Men's Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of South Fork as witness to the vanishing lifestyle of his friends and their families. Inspired by the book, Pintauro adapted it for the stage.

At its most obvious, the play is about the hardships endured by the baymen. It tells a realistic tale of a family desperately trying to preserve its traditions and independence in an age of relentless development, sport-fishing avarice, and a state government bullied by moneyed constituents. But the linear story narrated by Peter, a writer-fisherman who begins the play by reading excerpts from his journal, is told episodically. Interwoven with it are illuminating vignettes about memory, fishing lore, seafaring yarns, oral history, dreams, and fantasies. These departures expand a straightforward narrative to convey many layers of time, place, and voice. Pintauro is not always expert at stitching the pieces together. He relies on narration to smooth his transitions, often telling what is going to happen right before it occurs or interrupting moments of dramatic tension with plodding exposition or reflection. And while much of the language is either hard-hitting or lyrical, in the mouths of his characters, politics can sound pedantic. Such awkwardness is minor, however, when measured against the integrity of the play, which neither condescends to its nonurban, noncollege-educated characters nor idealizes them. The result is a heartbreaking portrait of proud, decent people.

In director Lee Sankowich's hands, the multiple points of view and the movements through time and space are smoothly choreographed around a single set on the Pope's intimate three-quarter thrust stage. Benefiting from close collaboration with Tony Award-winning set designer Tony Walton, Sankowich's vision of the play as a moody, expressionistic tableau is beautifully realized through innovative design and staging.

The set is dominated by a hulking shipwrecked dory, which suggests both the mythic proportions of the ocean and the remains of a fierce way of life. The characters take to the dory when they are off at sea; other times they move around it through sand piled on the stage floor. Scenes shift to the rhythm of lighting changes, slide projections, and a stunning use of a back-lighted scrim, as well as to a soundtrack that ranges from traditional recorder music to rock and roll. The textures provided by these elements evoke the raw beauty and unpredictable nature of the beach landscape, and perfectly complements the dilemmas with which the characters grapple.

As the only woman in the show, Sloane Shelton (Alice) amply proves how indispensable women were in rounding out the men's lives. She's a rock to her husband and two boys, shouldering burdens in silence and holding their increasingly meager lives together with salty optimism and insistent self-respect. When she cracks under the pressure of too much loss, it's evident just how strong she'd been before then. As her hard-drinking son Lee, Stephen G. Anthony is simultaneously jaded and poetic, cynical about the fishing life that has been handed down to him but aware that, as he tells Peter, "I'll die if I don't fish. I'll suffocate if I can't be on the beach and smell the water." Anthony brings to his characterization the blustery frustration of a fighter doing anything to numb the pain of losing a fight. There's not one moment when he's on-stage that he's not believable or effective. The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, including Joseph Jamrog (Walt) as Lee's kind and resigned father; David Case as William, the guileless younger brother who gradually hardens into accepting his fate; Sean Fagan as Nate, the vulnerable young cousin; Casey McDonald doing a comic turn as Pete's friend Popeye; and Dan Leonard as Peter, the well-intentioned narrator, forever the outsider.

Men's Lives was originally produced at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island. I assume it had particular significance there for its well-to-do and cultured audience, whose summer stomping grounds, the Hamptons, border the fishing community whose history the play relates. Like that resort area on Long Island, where immense homes line the dunes and people stand on line to buy overpriced fish caught by folks whose hardships they know nothing about, South Florida is a region once rich with natural resources and now dependent on tourist dollars for its revenues. In light of the recent ban on net-fishing that passed this November, Men's Lives tells a story that is just as poignant for audiences here.

While Men's Lives never sugarcoats the fate of its characters, it does insist on a larger faith -- in the cycles of nature and in the power of storytelling. "Tell them about us," William says when Peter announces he's finally writing the book he promised he'd write. "Tell them, because it ain't ever going to happen again like this." Peter did, and at the Pope Theatre we're lucky enough to hear the tale.


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