Swept Away, Kreeger Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC


Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Wayne Duvall (Captain), and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) in the opening scene of Arena Stage's East Coast premiere of Swept Away. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Upon entering the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage, the image is of the deck of what we will discover to be an 1880s whaling ship. At the center of the stage is a man in a hospital bed, which we learn is in the tuberculosis ward for indigents. In the bed is a character we will come to know only as “Mate.” He is clearly in great pain, probably more psychic than physical. He is delusionary as three figures enter his room from the ship’s deck visible behind him. All know that Mate’s death is imminent. To ease his pain and clear his conscience, the apparitions tell him that he must tell their story, painful as it will be.

The hospital bed is removed and we move back in time some twenty years to the deck of that whaler, which is alive with movement and noise as the crew prepares to sail from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Mate reports directly to Captain and acts as the intermediary between Captain and the sailors. A lanky young man, whom we will know as Younger Brother, appears. He is looking for adventure and to escape the life of the farmer for which he is destined. He is followed by Older Brother, who is determined to bring Younger Brother back home, away from the dangers of the whaling expedition. For Older Brother, there can be no greater calling or reward than connecting physically and spiritually with the earth.

Before Older Brother can get off the ship, it sets sail. He is trapped. Several days later, the ship is struck by a horrendous storm and sinks. Captain, Mate, and the two Brothers are adrift in a tiny lifeboat, with no provisions. How will any of them survive? What ensues among the men results in the secret that each takes to his grave, the story of their survival that all had agreed must never be spoken.

Swept Away is a new musical that premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2022. This production draws upon that production, including much of the physical production (especially scenery and costumes) and the four central actors. Written by Tony Award-winning playwright John Logan, the songs are by the Avett Brothers. The Avett Brothers have been nominated for three Grammy Awards in the field of Americana music, which combines elements of folk, country, rock, blues, and jazz. Swept Away’s score seems to draw mostly from the folk music genre. Based on just one hearing, I felt that, while suitable for the moments, there was a certain sameness about some of the songs.

Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Stark Sands (Big Brother), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), Jamari Johnson Williams (Ensemble), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Matt DeAngelis (Ensemble) in Arena Stage's East Coast premiere of Swept Away. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

In some ways, Swept Away is two different productions: one a boisterous, macho story of sailors and the sea, the other an intimate, highly philosophical tale of survival and sacrifice. I dare not go into further detail about the plot lest I give away shocking, unanticipated twists that cause the audience a collective, audible gasp of shock that I have not experienced before.

John Gallagher, Jr. stars as Mate. Mate is something of a rapscallion, a live-for-the-moment adventurer with a fondness for drink and the charms of women in every port. Gallagher masters the physical and vocal demands of his role, with a tinge of impish smile, but also a fiery streak of anger and violence underneath. Captain, played by Wayne Duvall, is on his last voyage. Duvall simultaneously projects both command, world-weariness, and survivor’s remorse. Adrian Blake Enscoe’s portrayal of Younger Brother is imbued with longing and a sense of mischief. As Older Brother, Stark Sands projects an idealistic practicality and more than a whiff of piety, along with deep brotherly devotion. All of the men’s voices are excellent, but there is a special transcendence about the way the voices of Enscoe and Sands blend on “Murder in the City.”

Ten additional ensemble members join the four central actors, delivering the show’s songs with what I can only describe as vocal and physical masculine muscularity. Their dexterity in executing the storm is amazing.

Visually, Swept Away is one of the most stunning pieces of theatre that I’ve ever seen. The storm, as staged by director Michael Mayer and choreographer David Neumann and executed by the cast and technicians, looks and feels totally real. Rachel Hauck’s set design is breathtaking, providing the perfect spaces for the “big” scenes on deck and the more intimate ones in the lifeboat. I was entranced and intrigued by the manipulation of the lifeboat and the Kevin Adams’s lighting design of the sea underneath the boat. Susan Hilferty’s costume designs provide a period-appropriate and earthy palette.

After the storm: Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), and Wayne Duvall (Captain) in Arena Stage's East Coast premiere of Swept Away. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

That the four main characters have such generic names is indicative of the two-dimensional nature of the characters. We get glimpses of their backstories; I would like to have known more.

Swept Away is daring and original, challenging and thought-provoking, but it is not for the faint of heart. Originally slated to close December 30, it has been extended to January 14, 2024.


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