‘The Last Lifeboat’ at Dayton Theatre Guild

By Jacqui Theobald

photo: (l-r) Heather Martin as Florence Ismay, Heather Atkinson in multiple female roles, and Matt Lindsay as J. Bruce Ismay in ‘The Last Lifeboat’ photos: Craig Roberts

In one of the few times in Theatre Guild’s 72-year history, a contemporary playwright came to see his show. Luke Yankee has a long accomplishment list as writer, actor, director, and all things theatrical.

Yankee spoke, after last Saturday’s performance, of his psychological/historical play that searches for the truth behind the facts of the sinking of the Titanic and the White Star Line’s owner who did not go down with the ship.

He told of discovering a Titanic museum in Nova Scotia, rich with ship and sinking stories but scant and one-sided information about its owner J. Bruce Ismay. Yankee was curious and began to research. “The Last Lifeboat” is the result.

At the talkback, the audience raised questions about what really happened and what was playwright imagination. The play, of course, blends both.

History sometimes hides backstories, and Yankee has contrasted an intriguing combination of psychological and physical vulnerability in Ismay, owner of the White Star Line and the Titanic – the disaster and his vilification in news of the time. Although the man carried his guilt until he died and testified honestly, politicians saw opportunities for vote-getting in blaming him. He was exonerated.

Ismay grew up with an imperious, successful father Thomas, who had built the White Star Line and often told his son how disappointed he was in him.  The constant message of inadequacy from his impossible-to-please father had a lifelong negative effect on Ismay.

Director Jeff Sams has managed to combine the epic historical tragedy with the personal psychological one and keep the action crisp. His actors play multiple roles, made clear by dialogue and action. They also move the multi-object set pieces briskly, not losing time with blackouts. Each brief scene flows into the next, smoothly, choreographically, and the audience seemed to have no trouble understanding as the eight actors played the more than 50 characters.

Matt Lindsay, as Bruce Ismay, brings the complex character to life, depicting the contrast between the anguish of private  survivor-guilt hallucinations, in which he repeatedly hears the screams of dying passengers, and public testimony delivered with stiff-upper-lip English honesty. He gives the character the humanity and depth that real life denied him.

The many characters played by all the other actors give each an opportunity for a range of characterizations. J. Gary Thompson is the father, Thomas; a southern-sounding American senator; a judge; J. P. Morgan; and J. J. Astor.  He defines each vignette with truth. “To warm up and prepare for each show,” Thompson says, “I go through each of the four English accents and the three American ones, to make sure I have them.”

Mike Beerbower plays William Randolph Hearst, who not only doesn’t like Ismay but also holds a 20-year grudge against him. From an actual on-the-floor tussle to his vindictive delight when he finds Ismay survived in the last lifeboat, Beerbower creates the epitome of nastiness in the brief scenes. The same actor predicts the disaster as Anderson, designer of the Titanic, who earnestly pleads for more lifeboats. It was J.P. Morgan who refused, greedy for two more first class cabins in the available space.

Zach Katris is Phillip Franklin and numerous other men with widely varied emotional states – angry, obsequious, smooth – and differing, subtle accents – Scottish, the American South.

Heather Martin plays Florence Ismay, who skillfully goes from a shy, awkward young woman to the mature and protective wife who supports her husband in his later years of traumatic distress.

Heather Atkinson is Mrs. Ryerson, who survives in a lifeboat, but is ready to sue over loss of her clothes, her jewels, and yes, her husband. Kerry Simpson is Margaret Ismay and many other characters of different ages, all fluidly portrayed.

Cassandra Engber plays Ismay’s first love, Vivian Hilliard, over some 20-plus years. She often conveys her reactions facially, silently.

Yankee’s play and especially Sams’ direction make this a total ensemble effort. Greg Hellems of Wright State University Theatre Department talked to the cast about inhabiting the environment together. “This was helpful in the slow-motion and pantomime scenes,” Sams says.

K.L. Storer gets high praise for his sound design; the background music of strings and chamber orchestra arrangements of the 1912 era are just right. The apocryphal “Nearer My God to Thee” is perfect. The sound of the crash into the iceberg is realistic, but when a loud clap of real thunder simultaneously occurred during last Friday’s performance, it was a one-time effect.

The set is stunning, filled with antiques befitting the era. Above are large, readable newspaper reproductions of the sinking and post-disaster happenings. The gangplank says ship, and movable wooden boxes and trunks serve as furniture in courtroom and boardroom. Set construction and props are credited to Marley Masterson, Sams, and the entire cast – more ensemble work.

Carol Finley has again designed costuming with thoughtfulness and economy for a seemingly enormous cast. She uses many flexible accessories – hats, sashes, jackets, and capes – keeping the time, style, and class well defined.

John Falkenbach’s light design is subtle, bold, creative, and a huge part of the ensemble’s flowing movement, as action moves around the small stage. The curtain calls highlight the total ensemble quality of the piece. It’s brilliant in both creativity and execution.

Hard-working crews should get curtain calls.

“Last Life Boat” is an ensemble in every aspect and asks a serious question, nowadays posed by Ismay’s great-great-grandson: “What would you do?”

‘The Last Lifeboat’ runs Friday, Sept. 2 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 3 at 5 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 4 at 3 p.m. at Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. in Dayton. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $13 for students. For more information and to buy tickets, please visit DaytonTheatreGuild.org or call 937.278.5993.

 

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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