Never whistle backstage. Even the greenest actors know the superstition, which supposedly dates back to the 17th century when, during the colder months, sailors would moonlight as stagehands. Masters at rigging, they would signal set changes with whistles, flying scenery in and out high above the stage. An inadvertent trill could cause a lot of damage. Fortunately, there’s little danger of that in Swept Away, a polished, technically impressive, and rollicking musical currently on the boards at Arena Stage through January 14, 2024.
Swept Away sails into DC after its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year. The musical combines 14 songs from several albums by folk-rock troubadours The Avett Brothers, renowned for their storytelling sensibilities, poignant lyrics, and delicate harmonies. The show’s premise, however, comes specifically from their 2004 release, Migonette, inspired by a real-life tale of shipwreck and survival. John Logan, best known in the theater for 2009’s Rothko-centered Red, stitched the songs together with the show’s lean, poetic book.
Swept Away begins in 1910 in a tuberculosis ward where Mate (played with hell-bound charm and scruff by John Gallagher Jr.) is dying. But before he can pass, three specters, his former shipmates, appear and demand he tell their story (ghosts are another shared affinity between the stage and the sea). In an extended flashback to 1888, Mate recounts the story that has haunted him for the last 22 years.
A whaling ship is about to set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts. The industry, we’re told, is on its last legs. Kerosene and paraffin have replaced whale oil as the fuel of choice. Mate, Captain (a grizzly, baritone Wayne Duvall), and a crew of ten are among its last purveyors. Onto the ship’s stern (rendered in great detail by set designer Rachel Hauck) bounds Little Brother (a jangly, porcelain-featured Adrian Blake Enscoe), looking for adventures in far-off lands. Close on his heels is Big Brother (a well-voiced Stark Sands), determined to drag him back to their home farm, and reality.
The musical’s first half is a psychomachia of sorts, a battle for the heart and mind of Little Brother between his dutiful, pious brother and the hedonistic Mate. All three actors clearly understand, and even relish, playing their characters’ emblematic virtues and vices. Each can slip between humor, hurt, and harmony with natural ease. Director Michael Mayer keeps the action tight while creating beautiful stage pictures with the ensemble cast of sailors, including the DC-based actors John Sygar and Michael J. Mainwaring. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are a parade of 19th-century workwear: denim, waxed cotton, kerchiefs, Henley shirts, and suspenders.
Six days out of port, the ship runs into “the teeth of a squall” and sinks. The sequence is awesome, in the fullest sense of the word. David Neumann’s choreography — which had been a sufficiently rousing and robust series of stomps, claps, thigh slaps, and hoists — devolves into a series of lurches and lunges so evocative you can nearly see the waves. Kevin Adams’ lights, previously eerie and moody, erupt into paroxysms, as does John Shivers’ soundscape. Hauck’s set pulls off an applause-inducing feat.
Now stranded in a lifeboat, the four survivors face dire prospects. The battle comes for Little Brother’s body, literally. Mate, who freely admits to oppressing women alongside Black and Indigenous peoples, contemplates an unspeakable act, while the brothers debate the meaning of sacrifice. The Captain, broken by the loss of his crew, relinquishes command. Credit to Hauck and Mayer, and the technical team, for depicting the adrift vessel through a rotating boat. Its silent twists and turns not only keep the stage picture fresh but also physicalize the characters’ struggles between lightness and darkness.
Here the musical’s themes come to a head: what are the ties that bind you; how to measure a life’s worth; what is freedom; what is duty; what is man; and where is grace found? These are timeless questions that still resonate. Logan’s book, along with the Avett Brothers’ lyrics, emphasizes that peace is only possible through sharing the truth, with yourself most — and often hardest — of all.
The production’s Broadway pedigree is unassailable. Several members of the cast and creative team have earned Tony wins or nominations from previous Broadway hits, including Mayer and Gallagher for Spring Awakening, and Stark Sands for both Kinky Boots and Journey’s End. The number of native Washingtonians with this production, including Mayer and Wayne Duvall, is also buoying.
Arena has an impressive record of sending musicals northbound on I-95, including 2017’s Best Musical Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen. That Arena continues to harbor shows of such ambitions and coordinated talents bodes well for the rising tide of theater in the nation’s capital. That’s something to stomp, sing, and get carried away about.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Swept Away plays through January 14, 2024, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($79–$149) online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday–Sunday, 12–8 p.m.).
Arena Stage offers savings programs for young audiences, students, veterans, their neighbors in Southwest, and many other groups. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.
The program for Swept Away is available here.
Closed captioning is available now through the GalaPro app. See Arena’s complete accessibility offerings here.
COVID Safety: Arena Stage recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters except in occasional mask-required performances. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.
Book by John Logan
Music and Lyrics by The Avett Brothers
Choreographed by David Neumann
Directed by Michael Mayer
By Special Arrangement with Matthew Masten, Sean Hudock, and Madison Wells Live