The play Men’s Lives, on stage through July 29 in revival at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, is set right here in the dunes of the East End. Twenty years ago, Men’s Lives premiered at Bay Street as the theatre’s inaugural production. Adapted by Joe Pintauro from the book by Peter Mathiessen, the play dramatizes the situation faced by the remnants of the Bonackers, the baymen who have fished the local waters for generations. Grounded by a solid cast, under the nimble direction of Harris Yulin, Men’s Lives is a moving portrayal of a way of life under assault from without and within.
While the play takes place in the not-so-distant past, for the family of fishermen depicted in the play it could practically be pre-industrial days. They are haul seining, rowing dories, mending nets, and tracking fish in the same way their ancestors did. Powerboats are spoken of as something newfangled. The mother, Alice (a boisterous Deborah Hedwall), talks proudly of birthing and raising her family in her humble shack on the dunes, heated by a wood stove. The kids start working young, they’re frequently in mortal peril from the “freak seas,” and they base their self-worth on their capacity for hard work. Un-calloused hands are a mark of shame. Grown old, they have neither the means nor desire to retire. The title Men’s Lives comes from Sir Walter Scott’s quote, which pretty much sums it up: “It’s not fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives.”
In the play, the East End baymen are the specific subject, but their tragedy can be understood as the tragedy of any traditional population that falls victim to a “colonial” invasion. The baymen are forced to compete with mechanized fishing operations that drive down prices. Development leads to pollution that kills off scallops and diminishes fishing stocks. Sports fishermen, or “sporties,” as the baymen call them, blame haul seining for the fish depletion and lobby to have the practice outlawed. The cumulative effect of these changes, as shown in the play, is an economic squeezing of the family, who then face the prospect of going to work performing menial tasks for the very people who they feel destroyed their livelihood. For a fiercely proud and independent breed, this subjugation would be worse than death.
It’s not all black and white, however. The father, Walt (Peter McRobbie, playing the wise old salt), admits to misgivings about the environmental impact of his way of life. He points to its terrible impact on his own body. But Alice urges him to resist change, saying, “This is what we drowned for. This is what we held on through the winters for.”
Eldest son Lee (the convincing Brian Hutchison) is the most devastated by the coming changes. He never finished high school, and is deeply suspicious of “upstreeters,” as Bonackers call the non-Bonacker population of East Hampton. Most importantly, he can’t imagine a way of life beyond the world he knows. It is through Lee that the play asks its most poignant question: what happens when a man can no longer do the only thing he knows, the only thing he loves? Is it worth it to go on?
It is certainly well worth it to go see the play. All of the actors turn in fabulous performances, with standout performances from Brian Hutchison and young Myles Stokowski as Nate. The set, designed by Andrew Boyce, is very effective, especially when combined with the evocative ocean sounds, courtesy of sound designer David Bullard. At an hour and a half, with no intermission, the show packs a huge amount of knowledge and emotion into a brief time frame, and does so with startling grace.
Men’s Lives runs through Sunday, July 29. Performances Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. Matinees Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $56 and $66. Call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.