4:45 PM CST, February 28, 2012
The danger of writing a play about fishermen is that the waters offer a tantalizing array of metaphors. One can write about dolphins in a net full of tuna, observe that a 12-pound walleye won't fit in a 10-pound aquarium, or compare a man to a carp. Or maybe a guppy. There are hooks, from which words can dangle and fish can flail; currents carrying things off; and the lines themselves, cast out hopefully into the unknown.
Those amply indulged rhetorical temptations, alas, submerge the potentially moving human story that playwright Jayme McGhan wants to tell in "The Fisherman," an earnest but overwrought new play produced by the Stage Left Theatre about a hitherto mild and compliant member of the proverbial 99 percent who suddenly finds his pension on the line at a bankrupt airline, and who decides to bite.
Even if you can get past all the fishy metaphors, there's another problem that gnaws away at McGhan's play, staged at Theater Wit. When Carl (Michael Pacas), the quiet Minnesota fisherman and baseball fan at the core of the drama, decides to strike back at the corporate managers whose ineptitude has scuppered his retirement (this play has never heard of the government agency known as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation), he does so with an act so massive and violent that it kills off any sympathy you have for the guy.
McGhan's intention, I think, is to provoke the audience into musing on how a good, peaceful man can be transformed and brought down by tough and horrendously inequitable circumstances, driven to the edge by the feeling of anger and impotence that too many blue-collar, hard-working Americans know all too well. That's a worthy and timely topic for a play, and McGhan has added lots of atmospheric and affectionate details as he paints a picture of a Midwestern man who becomes unhinged. But the actual act of desperation itself feels out of whack and doesn't serve McGhan's purpose. Many of us can be driven to places we're not proud of going, but we have limits to what horrors we might perpetrate, assuming we're not pathological. In this extreme instance, what transpires just does not ring true.
With the help of an evocative set from Alan Donahue, director Drew Martin's production is certainly earnest and quite expansive, with a decent central performance from Pacas, along with strong work from Sandy Elias, playing Carl's long-suffering brother and fishing buddy, and Kate Black-Spence, playing Chucky's daughter, a well-meaning cop who has to deal professionally with a surrogate father drowning. But there's another character here, a darker presence named Mutt (Ian Maxwell), who just does not seem to fit and whose various appearances — both in and out of the deep — seem to push the play and the production past the brink of what feels true.
When: Through April 1
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $25 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org
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