… endangered species …

Men’s Lives tells the story of what happens to fishermen on the East End of Long Island when the forces of change and politics put an end to the only way they know to make a living.  No more skeining with big nets, comes the law from Albany.  And with that, their way of life, based on a tradition of 300 years, is sucked out from under them the way, when you’re standing near the surf, the waves pull the sand out from under your feet.

In order to dramatize Matthiessen’s epic book, Pintauro makes the sensible dramatic choice of focusing on a single iconic fisherman’s family, a father who knew the good times and huge hauls, his three sons who all love the fisherman’s life, and a tough, loving, mother who owns the old house set in sand dunes facing the sea.  Nevertheless, so much is said rather than shown, one feels one’s being informed rather than engaged.

As the story unfolds on a set evoking the sand dunes and the cries of sea birds, we learn that times have been hard — Alice, the mother, recently and in secret, took out a mortgage on the house to keep food on the table but still, the men are seeing the sparsity of the great game fish, the striped bass, as cyclical, sure they’ll come back.

When William, the youngest boy, is washed overboard and drowns, the family draws upon a stoic fatalism, part of their fisherman’s inherited way of life, and holds together.  But they can’t overcome the second blow: the NY State government in Albany bans their way of fishing for stripers, seining with big nets.  This legislation is favored by environmentalists and based on environmental and fish stock benefits but, it’s indicated, the real force behind the legislation is self-serving political pressure brought to bear by wealthy sports fisherman, ‘the rod and reelers.”

The play fails to sort out the significance of the environmental issue.  Is Walt, the father, really correct in thinking that because in the past there have been swarms of fish, they’ll be there in the future?  Experience and common sense indicate that sweeping the seas with large nets leads to endangered fish populations.  (Sometime the loaded, heavy fishermen’s nets needed to be dragged in with the use of tractors, a point not made in the play.)

But whatever the truths of the issues, the fact is that these men’s admirable qualities of stamina, muscle, intimate knowledge of the fish and the waters, and courage against the elements are now useless, and so they feel irrelevant, helpless and without purpose.  They drink, they flounder at other jobs, they die prematurely.  Their fishing dory — open boat — breaks up, their house collapses, becoming no more than an odd-shaped lump among the dunes.  Only Peter, representing the author Matthiessen, who has wandered as a character throughout the play, sympathetic to the fishermen’s plight but unable to help, survives and comes in to his own purpose, to bear witness.

Men’s Lives tells an important story of what happens when a way to earn an honest living becomes obsolete.  It is a tragic story and highly topical, particularly in a world of fast technological change.  Here and there the play comes to dramatic life, particularly when Deborah Hedwall as a gritty, determined Alice is pushing her men — unfortunately to do the impossible.  In a memorable episode, Scott Thomas Hinson as Popeye, the friend, dances his own drowning.  Generally, though, I didn’t believe these actors had the wind in their hair and the waves at their back — especially Peter McRobbie, a fine actor but who here as the father, Walt, who would seem more at home with a pipe and a good book in his study than on that small open boat.

Joe Pintauro’s play Raft of the Medusa, also about a group of men struggling to survive against great odds, with the sea as metaphor, and recently presented off-Broadway in NYC, has far more intrinsic drama.  But what Men’s Lives lacks in drama, it partially makes up for in history.  I read the book awhile back but I’m glad to have seen the play as a refresher, all the more because I know how nowadays you can fish a full day east of Gardiner’s Bay, where these men took their boats, without catching a single striped bass “keeper” — even the once incredibly abundant blue fish, described in the play, are hard to find.

This is the 20 year revival of the play that inaugurated the Bay Street Theatre in 1992.  Men’s Lives has special meaning for being played in Sag Harbor, on Long Island’s East End, and the play itself, first presented during a Baymen’s protest, and with several Baymen attending the first performance, has its own dramatic history.  For more on its background, and for other information and tickets, click here: Men’s Lives.

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