Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Swept Away
Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Stark Sands, John Gallagher Jr., Wayne Duvall,
and Adrian Blake Enscoe

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Whatever audiences may expect to see in Swept Away, the muscular musical receiving its East Coast premiere in the Kreeger Theater at Washington's Arena Stage, the production will leave them surprised, shaken and inspired. This deeply emotional story of four sailors stranded by the wreck of their whaling ship in 1888 ably navigates issues of love and responsibility, powered by a richly melodic score by the Avett Brothers.

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

Book by John Logan
Music and lyrics by the Avett Brothers
Directed by Michael Mayer
Choreographed by David Neumann
Music director: Will Van Dyke

Ensemble/ u/s Mate: Hunter Brown
Ensemble/ u/s Mate: Matt DeAngelis
Captain: Wayne Duvall
Little Brother: Adrian Blake Enscoe
Ensemble/Dance Captain/ u/s Captain: Taurean Everett
Mate: John Gallagher Jr.
Ensemble/ u/s Big Brother & Little Brother: Cameron Johnson
Ensemble/ u/s Big Brother & Little Brother: Brandon Kalm
Ensemble/Partial Swing: Michael J. Mainwaring
Ensemble/ u/s Captain: Orville Mendoza
Ensemble/ u/s Captain: Tyrone L. Robinson
Big Brother: Stark Sands
Ensemble/Partial Swing: John Sygar
Ensemble/Partial Swing: Jamari Johnson Williams