With Saturday’s staged reading of his play “The Honor and Glory of Whaling” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, playwright Michael Gorman has come nearly full circle.
The play, which follows a New England fishing boat captain and his battle with the modern “great white whale” of heroin, has its roots in Vinalhaven, just off the coast of Rockland, where Gorman spent many years acting and writing. He presented a staged reading of an early version of the play on Vinalhaven more than 20 years ago, when it was called “Following the Northern Star,” which took its name from Captain Robby Foerster’s boat.
The play, as well as Gorman’s life, has changed a lot since then. Gorman, who lives in South China and New York, is the playwright-in-residence at La Mama Theater, a Manhattan performance space that specializes in emerging playwrights and experimental work. “The Honor and Glory of Whaling” is one in a trilogy of plays that Gorman has written about opioid addiction and the fishing communities of the Eastern Seaboard. His brother, a commercial fisherman, died of a heroin overdose in the late 1990s.
The play has evolved since the Vinalhaven days, but its heart survives. At its core, it remains an epic story of a fishing boat that sinks and the challenges of commercial fishing. It follows a fishing captain who falls deeply into addiction and begins a delusional chase (as Herman Melville’s Ahab pursued Moby-Dick) to kill the “whale” and rid the town of the drugs that are destroying it.
“The Honor and Glory of Whaling” is both the title play and the second in Gorman’s trilogy, which also includes “Ultralight” and “If Colorado Had an Ocean,” all of which have been produced independently at La Mama and published by Indie Theater Now. He hopes to fully stage all three in Maine, but for now is thrilled with the opportunity to present a staged reading at CMCA.
“In some ways, the staged reading is a much more efficient way to reach people in the community,” he said. “A full production takes a lot more planning and overhead. This will give you the feeling of a full production, with music and movement. Hopefully, people will want a full production after they see it.”
The reading on Saturday will be in CMCA’s largest gallery and will include the semblance of a set. Gorman has arranged for an 111/2-foot wooden skiff to be placed in the gallery, among Sam Cady’s artwork that’s on display as part of CMCA’s spring exhibitions. Actors will have to navigate the room’s booming acoustics, but performing in the large gallery feels appropriate because of the “grandiosity of the play. It has a big feeling,” Gorman said.
The play includes a cast of seven, a three-person chorus and two musicians. It’s about 90 minutes and will be staged with a brief intermission. David Bennett, a Mainer now living in New York City and a frequent collaborator with Gorman, will direct.
Collectively, the arc of the plays tells the story of the rise and fall of the commercial fishing industry and the role of heroin and opioid addiction in those communities. They’ve all been staged independently, and LaMama plans to present all three shows in a marathon telling in spring 2018.
Gorman grew up in Massachusetts and began writing plays at Clark University in Worcester. He is the founder and director of The Forty Hour Club, a theatrical production company.
In addition to his fishing trilogy, he’s written several other plays. But he feels closest to the fishing trilogy. He began writing the plays because “it’s the story that nobody listens to or hears.” That’s no longer the case. Opioid addiction in fishing communities is well-documented and better understood now than it was 20 years ago when his brother died.
He’s glad that people are listening and that his plays are part of the conversation.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 21 Winter St., Rockland
TICKETS & INFO: $15 suggested donation; eventbrite.com