Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Swept Away
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Freestyle Love Supreme

John Gallagher, Jr.; second row: Cameron Johnson,
Taurean Everett, Jacob Keith Watson, and Vishal Vaidya; back row: Adrian Blake Enscoe
and Stark Sands

Photo by Kevin Berne
"O hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea" goes the closing couplet of The Navy Hymn (formally "Eternal Father, Strong to Save"), and it was never more appropriate than it is for the crew of the whaling ship at the heart of Swept Away, the glorious and heart-wrenching new musical now playing in a world premiere production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's intimate Peet's Theatre. Created in part by the team that brought us American Idiot (which also premiered at Berkeley Rep before going on to Broadway, as I imagine this new effort will, and also directed by Michael Mayer), Swept Away tells a tragic tale of men doomed not merely by the dangers of a raging ocean, but by hubris, economics, and the ferocity of an animalistic hunger buried deep within our DNA.

We know the crew is doomed from the first moments of the show, not merely by the mournful banjo and cello music (by the Avett Brothers) that plays as we see the Mate (John Gallagher, Jr., star of both American Idiot and Spring Awakening) lying supine and near death on a rusty cot in a tuberculosis ward, but also by the fact that it's the late 19th century and whale oil is being replaced by newer fuels. "Kerosene!" the Captain spits out at one point, as if the word were poison on his lips. We also know death is coming because the Mate is soon visited by the ghosts of three of his former shipmates: the Captain (Wayne Duvall), Big Brother (Stark Sands), and Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) who, in no uncertain terms, inform the Mate that they will haunt him "until you tell our story." They then send him back into his tubercular dream world singing the haunting (yet somehow still jaunty) "Go to Sleep": "Lay back, lay back, go to sleep, my man. Wipe the blood from your face and your hands. Forgive yourself if you think you can. Go to sleep, go to sleep, my man."

It is the story of Little Brother, who has escaped–he thinks for a brief time–his boring life on a farm to have a "proper adventure," a last "goddam frolic" before taking up the plow for good. But Big Brother has followed him to New Bedford, and boarded the whaler with him, in order to protect him and return him safely to the farm.

That story begins when the curtain rises to reveal a cross section of a giant three-masted whaling ship (realized in massive scale in a gorgeous design by Rachel Hauck), where a proud crew is making ready for their voyage, singing "Hard Worker," and Big Brother and Little Brother each sing of their desires in "Nothing Short of Thankful": "Nothin' gonna change my mind, I'm traveling a different highway." Though the brothers are seeking the romance of the sea, the Mate reminds them harder times are ahead, when they will be covered in whale blood, and the salt that cakes in their eyes will make it impossible to sleep.

When the storm hits and the ship receives a mortal blow, the two brothers, Mate, and the Captain end up on a lifeboat that is so insubstantial, so meager that it feels like no refuge at all. (The transition between the scenes on the ship and those on the lifeboat received gasps of wonder and a hearty round of applause from the audience.) It is here they will face their sternest test: what will they do to survive?

Bookwriter John Logan (who also penned the play Red and the book for Moulin Rouge: The Musical) does not shy away from the gorier aspects of survival, yet it never feels forced and gratuitous, but instead serves as a brutally honest portrayal of what survival in such a harsh setting entails.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with strong voices perfectly suited to the Avett Brothers' songs. John Gallagher, Jr. is wondrous as he suffers through survivor's guilt, and occasionally narrates the action. Wayne Duvall's baritone has a world-weary tone that mirrors his guilt at not having gone down with his ship.

There is peril upon the sea, but there is very little in making the journey to Berkeley to see this incredible story of brotherhood, comradeship, and what we will do to survive. Get your tickets now so you can say you saw it when.

Swept Away runs through March 6, 2022, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional matinees have been scheduled Thursday, March 5 and Thursday, April 2 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $42-$268, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, visit, or call 510-647-2949.