By David Greenham
Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly rare for Boston area theater companies to produce shows that are as deeply rooted in our local culture as this one.
Think of Me Tuesday by Ken Riaf. Directed by Robert Walsh. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Lighting design by Marcella Barbeau. Costume design by Jennifer Greeke. Composition/sound design by Dewey Dellay. Projections design by Joey Frangieh. Staged by Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA, through October 17.
If you’re driving through Gloucester this month, you’ll surely see campaign signs for the real-life mayoral race going on this fall. Mayor Sefatia Romeo and challenger Greg Verga will be in a runoff election on November 2. But, glance around the area, and you will no doubt come across some red, white, and blue placards urging people to vote for Jim “Buddy” Chum. Take a good look, and you’ll see that these are clever advertisements, promotions for the current Gloucester Stage Company production. Once again, GSC proves that it talks the local talk with a show that is all about making everyone feel that they’re right at home. Resident creative entrepreneur Ken Riaf has set his comically thoughtful political fantasy in Gloucester during election season.
“Gloucester,” long-shot mayoral candidate Jim “Buddy” Chum (Ken Baltin) tells us, “is a good place to be born and a good place to die. But in the middle, get out!”
In Riaf’s play, Buddy is a longtime resident with a checkered past. He’s a bus driver, does some lobstering with his son, and in the summer he’s a guard for the restricted areas at Eastern Point. Mostly, it seems, Buddy is a dreamer. He is determined that Gloucester stay just as it is and not disappear under the weight of high-end development and the onslaught of rich tourists coming from other places. “There’s a tsunami! A tidal wave coming to wash away everything we hold dear,” he warns. That’s why Buddy is running for mayor for the umpteenth time.
His opponent is the sitting mayor (Maureen Keiller), confident, smart, and effective. Her big campaign promise is to get rid of the waterfront’s fish plant, which is stinking up the area — “the big funk,” as locals call it. Tearing down that building will allow for the construction of a luxury shopping mall that will make Gloucester a vacation destination. Progress is about bringing new wealth into town — and that will help everyone.
“I got nothing against progress,” responds Buddy via a Bernie Sanders-like whine, “I just don’t want to be around when it gets here.”
The battle between progress and preservation is an age-old story that’s been played out numerous times in every community along the New England coast. Despite growing signs of climate change and razor-thin profit margins, the area’s traditional industries — fishing, boat building, etc. — still stand at the center of our notions of what makes for a coastal community. Will the working waterfront give way to new ventures whose only value is to profit from stunning views of the water? Even as the sea levels rise. Probably. But not without a fight. That’s at the core of Riaf’s tale, and Buddy is the unsteady, and sometimes contradictory, heart of Think of Me Tuesday.
The election goes pretty much as you would expect. In response, Buddy decides it’s time to downsize his sprawling estate of shacks, old tires, and rust and find a more manageable place to live. When a man (Joshua Wolf Coleman) arrives with ready money, Buddy sells and even agrees to stay on and lead the renovations and very expensive upgrades that the buyer has in mind.
Playwright Riaf knows his story needs to be more than the typical battle of comfortable homegrown mediocrity versus progressive outsider flash. He turns to the sea — “the restless, unsettled sea” — for a surprising twist. The second half of the 90-minute production boasts an unpredictability that draws on a clever touch of the supernatural.
Director Robert Walsh has assembled a strong cast to bring Riaf’s comic fantasy to life. Baltin, who is a near-perfect everyman, gives Buddy a befuddled charm. Around this solid center revolve Keiller, Wolf Coleman, Inés De La Cruz, and Fernando Barbosa. The actors play a variety of roles, shifting quickly from one character to the next. Despite all this jumping about, Walsh maintains an even keel — the action never feels frenetic.
The design team has come up with a smart palette for the production. Set designer Jenna McFarland Lord has assembled a wall of lobster traps upstage that serve as a screen for Joey Frangieh’s projections. (There’s a short and deliciously dated tourism film about Gloucester screened at the beginning of the show.) Moving walls and an ever-shifting table shape the physical contours of each scene. (A couple of rolling office chairs zoom in and out, as needed.) The other members of the team, Marcella Barbeau (lights), Jennifer Greeks (costumes), and Lauren Corcuera (props), also support the concept well. Composer/sound designer Dewey Dellay provides an aural background whose sound effects, specific and abstract, evoke the spirit of the busy Gloucester harbor.
As with his previous locally based play, My Station in Life (which fans will catch a reference to in this show), Riaf demonstrates his marrow-deep love and understanding of Gloucester in a way that celebrates both the quirks and the joys of the seaside community. Like so many communities in New England, Gloucester inspires a nearly endless supply of stories of all kinds — real, imagined, and somewhere in between.
I hope that GSC will invite Mayor Sefatia Romeo and her challenger, Greg Verga, to see the show as they wander the campaign trail. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly rare for Boston area theater companies to produce plays that are as deeply rooted in our regional culture as this one. Gloucester would be very lucky if whoever wins the mayoral race on November 2 shared Think of Me Tuesday‘s passion for the healthy future of the city.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.