Thar she blows! ‘The Whaleship Essex’ at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse

Thar she blows! ‘The Whaleship Essex’ at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse

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From left: Dylan Riley-MacArthur plays Thomas Nickerson, and Christopher Patrick Mullen the first mate Owen Chase.

American playwright and screenwriter Rod Serling might have summed it up this way: “November 20, 1820. A lone whaler off the coast of South America. A deranged leviathan from the depths of a pitiless sea, and 21 sailors from Nantucket are about to meet their unspeakable destiny.”

It was the doomed whaleship Essex that left port on August 12, 1819. Only two days out, the 20-year-old vessel was battered by a squall that knocked out its beam ends and its top gallant sail, plus damaged one whaleboat and destroyed two others. Capt. George Pollard Jr. made the fateful decision to plunge on.

The Pacific Ocean had been depleted of whales by too many avid harpooners, so the Essex rounded Cape Horn. Other ships’ officers imparted the news that the west coast of South America was also stripped of their prey, but a new hunting ground had opened up 2,500 miles to the west.

Sean McGuirk, Christopher Patrick Mullen, and Wallace Bullock in a scene from "The Whaleship Essex."

Sean McGuirk, Christopher Patrick Mullen, and Wallace Bullock in a scene from “The Whaleship Essex.” — MJ Bruder Munafo

At last the men aboard the Essex found a pod of whales. They lowered their whaleboats to give chase. And…a monster from the deep found them.

Aboard the mother ship, the remaining sailors saw the beast lying far afield, eerily eyeing them. He was larger than normal, at least 85 feet long, huger than any leviathan ever seen.

A whale had never before attacked a ship, but this one charged, pulverizing the hull to stern, knocking the men sideways. And then it submerged, slowly grinding its spine beneath the wood boards with a sound that survivors reported still haunted their darkest dreams decades later.

The creature swam to starboard, turned and charged again, battering the Essex, cracking it like an eggshell. The killer disappeared as the ship began to sink. The men frenziedly removed all the provisions they could find, then took to two of the three still viable whale boats. Capt. Pollard, in the third craft, back from the chase, beheld his vessel buckling under.

“What happened?!” he cried.

First mate Owen Chase replied with typical Yankee tartness, “We have been stove by a whale.”

And this was only the start of the sailors’ Trials of Job at sea.

In “The Whaleship Essex,” New York playwright Joe Forbrich has brought this eye-popping tale to life in a way that reminds us that theater engages each audience member’s imagination. With a trio of golden sails, some ropes, some casks, a movable wooden helm, and a splendid sound and light show from Jeffrey E. Saltzberg and Kyle Kotarski, we fill in the rest as if we’re viewing a Darren Aronofsky3D biblical blockbuster, smashing waves, homicidal whale, an entire ship sinking glug-glug, and all. Directed by fellow New York theater veteran Peter Zinn, the play is opening the season for the newly renovated (and re-named) Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse,

Fourteen actors supply male vigor to the deck of the Essex. When they erupt in sea shanties, their basso male voices fill the air with an aggressive thrust: the polar opposite of the sweet soothing sounds of a Gregorian chant: It’s one of the truly impressive takeaways of this night in the theater.

The play is also packed with powerful reflections on man’s innate savagery, and the ludicrous, greedy, and soul-destroying hunt for fuel, in those days pilfered from whale blubber, now extracted from what sometimes seems like every last spare plot of ground.

The MV Times met up with the playwright on the final dress rehearsal night before last Friday’s opening. As ever when one encounters a cast and crew of theater folk, the high jinx are out of control. We found Mr. Forbrich half-hugging, half-Nelson-ing Mr. Saltzberg. Mr. Forbrich doesn’t walk, he gavottes from the box office to arrange seating for a woman arriving from Mystic Seaport, then bounds back to his interviewer, but not before smacking comically into a wall.

“I can fall backwards in this chair, then roll over and stand up,” he said.

“Oh please don’t!” cried this reviewer who, above all else, harbors a mother’s bleeding heart.

“Okay, I won’t,” he promised, and then we talked some more, and abruptly he knocked himself backwards, the chair smacked the floor, and sure enough he performed a reverse somersault and stood up as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.

In 2009 Mr. Forbrich sailed a 16-foot boat he’d cobbled together himself, “before I knew anything about building a boat.” He later apprenticed himself to Gannon & Benjamin in Vineyard Haven. During this maiden voyage he read Nathaniel Philbrick’s book about the Whaleship Essex, “In The Heart of The Sea” and, at one point, he scrawled across a page, “It is my destiny to write a play about this!”

And so it was. The pages piled up while he acted in “Lucky Man” on Broadway with Tom Hanks. He asked Mr. Hanks if he’d play Capt. Pollard in a reading. The movie star agree and our own M.J. Bruder Munafo, artistic director of the Playhouse, happened to catch the event. Mr. Forbrich’s wife, Jennifer Valentine, produced a workshop of her husband’s new play in New York; and the rest is, if not history, then breaking news.

Another reason to flock to the theater is to savor the Playhouse’s refurbishment — double staircases, the scent of new wood, high ceilings, Victorian-style molding, fresh blue chairs, and the stage situated eastwards.

Some Vineyarders are under the impression that the arrival of the renovated Charles B. Morgan in Vineyard Haven was timed to complement the opening of this play. Ms. Munafo responded with a laugh: “If only we had that kind of influence! No, the timing was coincidental, but there’s some great synchronicity at work, wouldn’t you say?”

The single silver lining of the excruciating saga of “The Whaleship Essex” is the fact that it inspired Herman Melville to write the great American masterpiece “Moby-Dick,” astounded as he was by the concept of a murderous whale. Now there’s a second masterpiece to emerge from that tale of woe, and it enjoys its world premiere at the Playhouse from June 21 to July 12.

Theater: “The Whaleship Essex,” Wednesdays–Saturdays through July 12, 7:30 pm. Also a matinee on Saturday, July 5, 2:30 pm. $50; $40 seniors; $30 students. For tickets and more information, visit vineyardplayhouse.org or call 508-696-6300.