Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize winning short novel entered the general visual consciousness with the Spencer Tracy's black and white movie, but this performance of Weylin Symes' adaptation of the book in full color might just wipe away any Late Show images. Arguably one of Boston finest actors, award-winner Richard McElvain creates a compelling physical image of the old man, Santiago, complete with a Hemingwayesque beard, and also finds a unique voice to recount the story of a simple fisherman's epic battle with a huge marlin. McElvain's experience in such plays as McDonough's "St. Nicholas" and "The Weir", plus years as director for master storyteller Jay O'Callahan, make him the perfect choice for this role. "The Old Man and the Sea"s director Greg Smucker brings useful experience from his work with groups such as the Underground Railway Theatre to allow the simple furniture in the old man's shack become a skiff at sea, with a few poles and some rope as props. Wheelock Family Theatre regular, Nicholas Carter, as the old man's young friend, the fledgling fisherman Manolin, shifts things as needed while getting Santiago to finish his tale, providing much needed food and the baseball scores. The sections of the book are indicated by voice over narration recorded by Melinda Lopez, whose Cuban memory piece, "Sonia Flew" just received the IRNE award for best new play of 2004.
The show would probably work on an almost bare stage, but award-winning designer Richard Chambers, now with Suffolk University's theatre, provides a magical setting for the tale. The old man's tiny shack is cantilevered out through an giant abstract wave constructed from bamboo roll fencing. Scenic artist Jenna MacFarland, who provided at interesting set for Speakeasy's "The Moonlight Room" this winter, has sprayed the surface with an almost magical blend of colors. Lighting designer Annemarie Duggan, who last did "The Sweepers" for Stoneham, has used internal and footlight sources as well as the conventional hanging to make the whole design float in space. Subtle color changes move the action along. To complete the production, composer David Reiffel, a member of NOMTI, provides a soundscape which blends natural sounds of the sea with underscoring to heighten moments of drama. Hemingway's vision is well served by this production, which vividly brings the book to the stage. Stoneham's Artistic Director Weylin Symes has constructed a text from the author's words, using his own mostly to condense and bridge sequences, in adaptation that stays true to the original.
Part of the charm of the evening is McElvain's seemingly effortless naturalism as he evokes the old man's trial at sea. Carter's earnest juvenile falls readily into the rhythm of the scenes, performing his stage management tasks as if he were out on a boat fishing with his master. This is probably the major way this stage production goes beyond the book, and all to the better. The boy is actually with the old man as imagination supercedes reality and memory brings the time at sea back. Yet at the same time the ancient magic of the storyteller is present, and with the author. Smucker has carefully orchestrated the action to take advantage of the relationship which builds up between the two during the show. A brief note should be made of costumer Alison Szklarz' effective ragged and saltstained off-white costumes for the pair.
This production could well be one of the must-see efforts of this season, a tribute to Hemingway's artistic vision. "The Old Man and The Sea" is only on for a limited run owing to scheduling problems. One can only hope that the piece can be revived, either in this venue or perhaps during the summer elsewhere in the area. Additionally the text should attract other seasoned actors to try their hand at its subtle challenges. Stoneham has eliminated one of its developmental productions this spring and will conclude its season with Dick Van Patten's touring production of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" in May followed by Agatha Christie's long-run champion, "The Mousetrap" ion June, getting an early start on summer stock fare.
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