In its world premiere first professional performance, Swimming With Whales at 1st Stage has already built an impressive record in its preparation. It was part of the Sigworks Readings at Signature Theatre, was a winner of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting, and over the past ten years has been workshopped or developed at the National New Play Network, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and NYC’s The Lark New Play Development Center.
The production at 1st Stage shows why it has garnered such support and why director Alex Levy took it on. The play has plenty of comedy, but the dramatic aspects are rooted in loss and grieving, sparked by personal experiences of local playwright, Bob Bartlett. The lovely set design by Kathryn Kawecki shows a realistic Nantucket Island beachfront shack and a more playfully rendered ocean-scape, where more theatrically magic moments spring forth. The lighting design by Robbie Hayes and sound design by Sarah O’Halloran land us on the beach, submerge us underwater, and shift our reality to communicate with a talking whale.
That empathic young whale, played by Nate Shelton, strives to reduce the anguish of Owen (Ethan Miller) and his father, Patrick (Matthew R. Wilson), and does so by re-instilling the sense of healing and balance that the oceanside provides. Fifteen-year-old Owen hasn’t been to his birthplace, or seen his father, in 10 years and the conflicting emotions of Wilson and Miller are beautifully realized. Owen has reason for his teen angst and for his anger at both of his parents. Shelton begins the production by trying to entice the boy to swim, but also to breathe. Choices for anthropomorphizing the whale and playing the creature as a slight young man in faded camo pajama shorts, didn’t entirely work for me, but not due to any lack on Shelton’s part. All of the acting is strongly committed, but I was not engaged by this, the most non-realistic aspect of the show, which needed more theatrical elements.
Teresa Castracane is magnificent as Anne, who is exhausted by caring for her angry and scornful son. She has dragged Owen from Boston to Nantucket so that she can say goodbye to her dying friend, Hoagie. Anne’s ex is Patrick, Owen’s father, but their estranged relationship is deeply intertwined with Hoagie and Grace (played richly by Jessica Lefkow), a park ranger who is the fourth member of their formerly intimate quartet.
Owen is forced to deal with a sea of troubles; far more tragic than the standard gripes that teenage boys have against authority figures. Dramatic issues of abandonment, illness, loss, and grief are countered in the play by love, humor, support, and redemption. The play reestablishes to the characters, and to the audience, the comforting power of nature.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.