Horovitz’s Fish Story Rings All Too True In Gloucester
GLOUCESTER — The Gloucester fishing industry has long had a proud history. There’s an almost mystical relationship between the ocean and fishing families, one that has always made Gloucester special in New England.
In recent years, of course, the story has been about the decline of the industry as stocks have diminished, harsh government restrictions have been enacted, with little if any hope for New England fishermen. All in all, it’s been an economic perfect storm.
There has also been, in Gloucester, a thriving arts scene. It’s far enough removed from urban matters and the quality of natural light mixed with ocean breezes fairly cries out to be written about and painted.
Israel Horovitz founded the Gloucester Stage Company in the Rocky Neck area in 1979 and while he’s no longer running the show artistic director Eric Engel still stages about a play a year of his. Horovitz, himself, is in France, getting ready to film his play, “My Old Lady,” with Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Jane Birkin.
Well, if you’re going to miss out on a very good production of your play, “North Shore Fish,” hanging out with those actors in France isn’t a bad trade-off.
The 1986 play focuses on a group of women whose jobs at a Gloucester company have been reduced to repackaging frozen fish imported from other countries, into fishsticks and fending off the sexual advances from their married boss.
And they’re the lucky ones. They’ve seen their friends laid off from North Shore Fish and their boss continually warns them that they’ll be next if they don’t go faster, cut more corners, and be more responsive in every way. But at least they have a job.
The assemblyline is soulless, but they’re far from that. Nancy Carroll plays the matriarch, Arlyne, always insisting that the cyclical nature of the industry will turn in their favor and giving the evil eye to anyone uttering a four-letter word. (Carroll’s eye can be pretty evil, too, even though Arlyne’s edges are very soft, which Carroll also beautifully conveys.) Others are lovelorn, depressed or otherwise abused.
Horovitz has a nice touch writing about race and class, particularly as he finds those issues played out on the heterogeneous streets of Gloucester. His characters in this play, particularly, feel like the real thing. Their loneliness and anger could come from anywhere in working-class America these days (not that white-collar folks are so jolly) but their flirtations and teasings, their rootedness in community, have a particular Gloucester accent.
Arlyne’s declaration, “I wish they didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor … They must have had their reasons, that’s all I can tell yez” risks condescension, but here it seems perfect. Ditto Flo, the belle of the fishstick women but one with a vicious temper. She’s the boss’s (Sal’s) latest conquest and if she hears one of her colleagues talking about it is prone to blurt out, “What’s this, you!” or start throwing things.
Aimee Doherty, who plays Flo, has risen to the top of the Boston scene as a singer. She was the star of the Lyric Stage Company’s “On the Town” and, along with Carroll, she’s just as commanding in a straight play (though she gets to join in a fun ensemble number of “Do Right Woman.” She gets the one great aria in the play and she nails it as lyrically as if she’s singing Sondheim:
“This is not the fish business, Josephine. This is the non-union bottom of the barrel, end -of-the-road, frozen, breaded dung business. I know what fish is. Fish is alive until you kill it. Fish is something that bleeds when you cut it open. You see this already -wrapped-and-unwrapped-twenty-seven-times-frozen-dung? (She breaks apart a frozen fish-brick into its component parts) One little fish neck. two little fish-backs, piece of tail, piece of another tail … answer me a question: Did you ever in your entire life see anybody actually eat this [expletive]?”
Horovitz, however, doesn’t always know when to stop. If ever a playwright needed a good editor. Sal’s character is so over the top that he’s constantly threatening to drag the play down on his always-furious shoulders. It’s the first time I’ve seen the play so it’s hard to say whether the fault is all Horovitz’s or whether director Robert Walsh (who does an otherwise excellent job) and the actor, Lowell Byers, deserve blame as well. But Sal’s last scene is so preposterous that the young Brando couldn’t have made it work.
The woes facing the fishing industry have only gotten worse. Horovitz wasn’t the only one to see it coming, but he channeled it into a play that speaks eloquently about the shape of things, then and now, and not just in the fishing industry.