Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
Hemingway’s classic novella The Old Man and the Sea is a timeless story of determination and struggle, keeping readers on the edge of their seats wondering who will win in a battle of wills – the old man, or the sea? Weylin Symes’ new stage adaptation of the piece retains the plot of the book – Santiago (Richard McElvain), determined to end his recent spate of bad luck, sails out into deeper water and battles to hold on to a large marlin – but somehow manages to lose the story of struggle along the way.
The major obstacle in dramatizing the piece is its setting. Most of the original takes place in a boat, on the open water, exploring the inner workings of Santiago’s mind as he struggles with his adversary, the marlin. Rather than attempting to embody the fish or portray the fight, Symes has reframed the narrative, which we now encounter as the fisherman’s young protégé, Manolin (Nicholas Carter), coerces an exhausted Santiago to recount his recent adventure on the sea. This conceit undermines the drama of the original – seeing Santiago animatedly recount his adventure; there is no question of whether or not he will make it back from his battle with the fish. Here he is. However, McElvain and director Greg Smucker find a new dramatic question. Rather than asking will Santiago make it back in one piece, they confront us with an excitable, rambling, and perhaps broken man and challenge us to ask did Santiago actually make it back in one piece?
McElvain’s performance is no less than a tour de force. He transforms his monologues into fully realized plays in miniature, whispering and yelling, all the while making full use of his body to reenact encounters with weather, sharks, and that darn marlin without ever letting us forget that it’s an old, battered man recounting what may be his last great conquest. Carter is given much less to do, becoming something between a plot device and a costumed stage hand for most of the show, prompting Santiago to tell his next story whenever it’s appropriate, but mostly moving large props around to assist Santiago’s storytelling. Still, this young actor makes the most of his material, staying in the moment as Santiago tells his tales.
The story-telling aspect of the play is helped considerably by a skilled design team. Richard Chambers has built the sea on stage, imagining a gigantic blue bamboo wave surrounding and overwhelming Santiago’s tiny home. Evocative lighting by Annmarie Duggan and haunting sound cues by David Reffel heighten the transitions from moments shared between Santiago and Manolin to Santiago’s flashbacks. The costumes by Allison Szklarz complete the stage picture perfectly, never once allowing us to doubt that this old man really did the things he claims.
This play, a world premiere as part of the Stoneham Theatre’s Emerging Stages Program, doesn’t fully satisfy, and doesn’t feel quite finished. An uncredited narrator begins the evening and pops in from time to time, interrupting the flow in a way that suggests the playwright – who also happens to be the theatre’s artistic director – ran out of ideas at certain points in his adaptation. And the change in the story’s structure deprives the narrative of a natural place to end, leaving the conclusion somewhat softer than it might be. However, as an evening of theatre, The Old Man and the Sea hardly disappoints.
The Old Man and the Sea is presented by the Stoneham Theatre, 125 Main Street, Stoneham, MA through April 3. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. There is no performance on Easter Sunday, March 27. Tickets are $32 for adults, $27 for seniors, and $16 for students. Tickets are available online or by calling (781) 279-2200. The Stoneham Theatre’s season continues with Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, starring Dick Van Patten, May 5 – 22, 2005.
Photo: Emily Sweet