Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Director Michael Mayer, choreographer David Neumann, and their four lead actors have been part of this work since its 2022 world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. The entire cast, which includes a robust ensemble of sailors, brings the story to pulsating life.
The heart of the production is the Mate (Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr.), dying of tuberculosis years after the deaths of his three comrades. Their spirits return to him, forcing him to confront their story as a form of forgiveness and a way to end their eternal wanderings. They are the Captain (Wayne Duvall); Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe), who ran away from his family's farm to travel to exotic places like Tahiti; and Big Brother (Stark Sands), who tried to bring his brother home but ended up trapped on the ship with him.
Bookwriter John Logan sets his story at a time when whaling was no longer the adventure, or the career path, it had been earlier in the 19th century (i.e., the time of Moby Dick). The Captain explains that, with the discovery of kerosene from petroleum, whale oil is no longer a necessary commodity and he is commanding a crew of "useless men hunting a vanishing prey" on board a ship about to be taken out of service.
The songs provide the engine for the central conflict: will Little Brother follow his brother's religious faith despite setbacks, or will he decide the Mate's life of drinking, women, and petty crime is more to his taste? Circumstances eventually force those three, along with the Captain, to figure out what "being my brother's keeper" really means.
Each of the four leads has an opportunity to stand out as the sailors' existence becomes more and more tenuous. Sands' voice has an ethereal quality, Gallagher maintains a charming veneer even as matters become more desperate, Enscoe is boyish, impulsive yet resolute, and Duvall demonstrates the pathos of a man who realizes he has outlived his usefulness. Neumann's choreography literally soars as performers scale rope ladders high above the ship's deck.
Rachel Hauck's beautifully detailed set design is both overwhelming and flexible, allowing for beautifully unexpected visual moments. Kevin Adams' lighting design uses bold colors to create vivid illusions of both sky and sea. Music director Will Van Dyke leads seven other musicians in a sweeping score of power and beauty.
Swept Away runs through January 14, 2024, at Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
Book by John Logan