Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Phantom
Its premiere coincides with the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgeraldan event known beyond the Great Lakes thanks to Gordon Lightfoot's well-known elegiac song. The Storms of November, however, is not that story. Playwright Cragun invents two November storms some 40 years apart that are crucibles in the life of its central character, Marianne Carter. We first see Marianne as a young child during World War II, a stowaway on a freighter, the Iris, with her Belgian immigrant mother. They are discovered just as a violent gale sets in, taking the lives of all aboard ... save young Marianne, who survives several hours in the frigid lake waters before being rescued.
We meet Marianne again in the early 1980s when she is among the first women to earn the rank of Captain on a lake freighter. Her ship, the Marie Kearns, is known to be the fastest on the lakes, but is overshadowed by newer ships that are larger. In a weak economy, the shipping company needs to reduce costs, and volume is better for their bottom line than speed. This sets up a conflict between Marianne and the new company president, a former auto executive with a reputation as a hatchet man.
The strains of making a living on the freighters is brought home through a series of tense conversations between first mate Bobby Peterson and his wife Judy, shifting between Judy's fear for Bobby's safety, Bobby's worry about the prospect of a lay-off, and concern about the effect of his long absences on their teenage daughter. These scenes occur in the cozy confines of Esther's Café, a small town mainstay, where Esther serves motherly wisdom and comfort along with breakfast.
On the Marie Kearns it is evident that Marianne has more on her mind than her ship's speed as she looks with melancholy upon the vast waters that swallowed her mother decades ago. In addition, there is tension in her relationship with third mate Dylan Reed, newly graduated from a maritime academy. It is not hard to figure out the nature of their relationship, even though neither character states it openly until late in the second act. We also see deckhands Jordan and Toni trade stories while swabbing the deck under the gruff watch of bosun "Dirty Dan" Perkins. This all leads up to the second monster storm, which becomes the defining moment for Marianne, Bobby, and Dylan.
All of the above narrativethe wreck of the Iris, the challenges facing the crew of the Jean Curie, and the big stormis given a framing device set in the present in which "Dirty Dan," now captain of the freighter Marianne Carter, tells a fretful newbie on his crew the story of their vessel's namesake.
That makes for a lot of storytelling, along with references to the legacy and prospects of shipping on the Great Lakes, and in particular the storied storms that have been the industry's constant companion. This array of facets reveal the interplay between history and legend, economics and engineering, life shipboard and life ashore, that form the panorama of Great Lakes shipping.
Still, in packing so much into a two-hour play, Cragun sacrifices depth. None of the storylines feel fully developed, making it hard to become invested in these characters. Some plot points feel contrived to arrive at the pre-set conclusion, such as Marianne's advance preparation for a final voyage she could not have anticipated. Also, the different plot lines each carry a different tone. Bobby and Judy's domestic drama, the gamesmanship between Marianne and the company president, and Marianne's existential yearning each place us in different emotional terrain, rather than building along a single beam of feeling. Director Liz Neerland guides us smoothly and with clarity from one tone to the next, but the overall effect still is of separate parts rather than a whole.
That said, elements of the play are done very well. The enactment of storms on Lake Superior is excitingly staged, with rising tension and recognition of danger, greatly abetted by Mitchell Frazier's lighting and Jacob M. Davis's sound design. There is authenticity in the conversations between Bobby and Judy, a couple facing the reality of choices, none of which are what they really want. Marianne's morose nature, drawn from the losses she endured throughout her life, is convincingly presented, as is her determination to stand as a bulwark against further losses.
None of the performances can be faulted. Heidi Berg's sensitive performance as Marianne builds upon the playwright's work to give her character a strong presence. Other highlights include Zach Morgan, compelling as conflicted first mate Bobby Peterson. Erin Denman is well matchedthough perhaps a bit too youngas his wife Judy, struggling to be supportive but unable to hide her fears. Brian O'Neal effectively gives Dylan Reed a layer of emotional armor that he allows to slowly melt away, and Sara Schwabe's assured performance as Esther is completely authentic.
The set may be too ambitious for the scale of this production. With Esther's Café in one corner, the bulk of the stage is occupied by a ship deck and wheelhouse that serves as the Iris, the Marie Kearns, and the Marianne Carter. The deck runs deeply toward the back of the stage, so that the elevated, set-back wheelhouse pulls the actors away from the audience. To heighten the staging of the storms, the back wall of the wheelhouse is made to roll up and down, to create an illusion of the swell of storm waves. This is great in concept, but seeing the back wall in motion while the floor remained in placealong with audible creaking of the machineryis actually a bit of a distraction. The sound and light effects, along with the high caliber of acting are sufficient to bring these scenes to vivid life.
The Storms of November is a terrific primer on the past and present of shipping on Lake Superior, the constant specter of nature's fury on this inland sea, and the ways in which both industry and nature have impacted men and women throughout the past century. Within the play lie so many other themes, with the potential to more fully engage an audience. Thoughtful pruning to focus on and deepen one or two primary storylines might make The Storms of November an even more compelling work of theater.
The Storms of November continues through November 22, 2015, at Nimbus Theatre, 1517 Central Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Ticket pricing is based on sliding scale, $14.00 - $41.00. For tickets call 612-548-1380 or visit www.nimbustheatre.com/.
Written by Josh Cragun; Director: Liz Neerland ; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Design: Mitchell Frazier Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Props Design: Eli Schlatter; Production Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson; Ass. Stage Manager: Matt Alto; Production Manager: Monique Lindquist
Cast: Heidi Berg (Marianne Carter, Coast Guard), Erin Denman (Madeliene Charlier, Judy Peterson), Brian Hesser ("Dirty" Dan Perkins, Coast Guard), Derek Meyer (First Mate on the Iris, David Caughlin), Zach Morgan (Captain of the Iris, Bobby Peterson), Genevieve Neerland (Marianne Charlier*), Brian O'Neal (Bosun on the Iris, Dylan Reed), Alyssa Perau (Lori, Toni), Sara Schwabe (Esther, Linda Douglas), Charlotte Tate (Marianne Charlier*), Daniel Vopava (Jordan, Coast Guard.
* alternating performances