Theater : Those who stayed home
The story of women who sailed with their whaling husbands has been told, but the lives of those who stayed home has not been chronicled. Edgartown's E. St. John Villard has delightfully remedied that absence with her musical, "An Island of Women," produced by the Island Theatre Workshop.
With music by Philip Dietterich, a retired minister who summers in Oak Bluffs, "An Island of Women" premiered at The Yard on Thursday, June 11, in a benefit for the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
Based on extensive research about the Vineyard's whaling families, the play is subtitled "Life on the Vineyard, 1850-1852," and bases its fictional characters on three real Island families.
Suzanna Norton (played by Barbara Fehl) manages the family farm, while her whaler husband, Schubael, is at sea. Refusing to accept that her husband, Ebenezer, has been lost at sea for many years, Thankful Mayhew (Alison Taylor) runs the family store. Elizabeth Osborne (Pamela Butterick) is the affluent neighbor who hasn't heard from her husband, Cornelius, in more than three years, and misses her daughter-in-law and granddaughter who are at sea with her son, Benjamin.
Keeping the relatives straight is daunting, but if Ms. Villard had to sacrifice character development by using such a large cast, she has effectively captured the sweep of history through narrative detail.
In one scene, daughter-in-law Sarah Cooke Norton (Katrina Nevin) protests to her sister-in-law Hannah (Katharine Pilcher) that she hardly remembers what her husband looks like. In a powerful, poignant duet, "Friendship," the two celebrate the consolations of their social connection.
A pregnant Hannah's husband Jared (Matt Pelikan) heads to sea, while little David Norton (James DiMattia) complains because he isn't old enough to ship out yet; Patience Mayhew (Kathryn Antonsson) moves to New Bedford to work in a mill as she waits for her betrothed to return from whaling; and Mercy (Abigail Southard), determined not to follow the path of the other women, falls in love with an off-Island builder, Peter Bradford (Dan Larkosh). In a vibrant soprano, Ms. Southard sings, "I Don't Want to Marry a Whaler."
In a clever, if sometimes awkward device to share the contents of the letters from abroad that keep families in touch, Elizabeth and Lucretia (Martha Hudson) take turns reading each other's letters aloud to their respective daughters, Sofronia (Belle Dinning) and Lucinda (Gabrielle McElhinnay-Wilbur). What is highly effective is the epistolary format itself as a powerful reminder of how communication technology has changed in the past 157 years.