In a non-descript building on the outskirts of Durham, magic is happening. Sheer magic. This is not an office space in 2016. It is 1897, and a giant passenger ship, The Merry Rose, is leaving Europe for the New World. The audience members for the Ward Theatre Company production of I Wish You a Boat are part of the ship’s 190 passengers. The wealthy travelers have first-class tickets, while those with lesser means travel below deck in steerage.
Once aboard, the audience learns that the boat will leave port two hours late, and the captain is speeding through a narrow straight to make up time en-route. This reckless decision leads to disaster — the ship’s hull hits rock that creates a gaping hole in its hull, and the hull starts filling with freezing water. The passengers must abandon ship.
The audience knows this story will not end well for everyone. In fact, it will not end well for most. Of the 190 passengers, only a third will survive. And yet, the telling of this particular tragedy is the most visually stunning and masterful storytelling that I have seen in quite some time.
The venue is very dimly lit throughout the play, with a handful of Edison light bulbs weakly glowing to illuminate the action. The darkness was initially disconcerting, but it gives the set the feel of an old, well-worn memory, or something you are trying vainly to recall.
The room is bare save a simple table and small bench. The ethereal music and water noises enhance the hazy effect. Then, when the actors enter and the scenes on the boat start to unfold before our eyes in silent slow-motion, the visual effect is simply breathtaking.
The viewers squint in-between the actors’ silhouettes, and can just make out the scenes: a woman saving her caged birds; a husband escorting his wife to a lifeboat; younger women, oblivious to the danger, laughing about how they look in the “lifebelts”; an opportunist scavenging from the abandoned property; a lady coming back to look for an earring she left behind, a decision that the those watching this play know may cost her life.
Playwright and director Wendy Ward makes interesting and innovative choices. The story moves backwards in time, starting with the sinking of the ship and ending with the bon voyage. By the time they wave goodbye at the beginning of their end, the viewers already know the passengers’ fates, so the goodbye becomes that much more poignant.
What’s truly remarkable is the cast and crew’s ability to elevate this simple setting into a nautical courtroom, first-class cabins, steerage, and beyond, simply with their body movements and stunning costumes. The audience feels their joys, knows their stories, and watches as water flows into the passengers’ staterooms and they recognize their fate. The tragedy is told without an intermission. You feel helpless, you can’t save them, and yet you can’t look away.
The play examines the human condition, class distinctions, and the value of human life. Why is it that all of the survivors were upper class? Why did some men get a place on a lifeboat? How would you handle yourself in a crisis? At your moment of death?
During a pause in the action, one of the actors reads an Edmund Vance Cooke poem, entitled How Did You Die?
Death comes with a crawl or he comes with a pounce
And whether he’s slow, or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,
but only, how did you die?
If you can only see one more play this year, be sure to catch this show before it sails. I can’t recommend it enough.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 6th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8095; Aug. 3rd Raleigh, NC Broadwayworld.com Raleigh review by Taryn Oesch: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-I-WISH-YOU-A-BOAT-Ward-Theatre-Company-Explores-Immigration-Class-in-Historical-Play-20160803; Aug. 27th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/i-wish-you-a-boat-saves-its-sympathy-for-those-in-steerage-during-a-fateful-shipwreck/Content?oid=5054634 and Aug. 6th preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/embark-on-a-timely-voyage-into-immigration-issues-in-i-wish-you-a-boat/Content?oid=5048547; and Aug. 6th Hillsborough, NC WHUP/Radio 104.7 interview for “Lights Up”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-7616-permanent-archive/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 13th Triangle Review review by Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/07/ward-theatre-companys-i-wish-you-a-boat-is-a-rewarding-voyage-for-triangle-audiences/.)
Ward Theatre Company presents I WISH YOU A BOAT, written and directed by Wendy Ward at 8 p.m. Aug. 20, 3 p.m. Aug. 21, 8 p.m. Aug. 23-27, and 3 p.m. Aug. 28 at 4905 Pine Cone Dr., Suite 12, Durham, North Carolina 27707.
BOX OFFICE: 917-816-2122, email@example.com, or http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/i-wish-you-a-boat/.
PRESENTER: http://www.wardtheatrecompany.com/, http://wardstudio.com/, https://www.facebook.com/WardTheatreCompany, and https://twitter.com/wardstudio.
NOTE: There will be a Q&A session after each Sunday matinee performance.
Wendy Ward (New York City and Durham, NC playwright, director, and teacher): https://www.facebook.com/WardActingStudio, and https://twitter.com/wardstudio (Twitter page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.