A play with Gloucester roots and a Gloucester story is coming home tonight after productions on stages around the globe.
“North Shore Fish,” by award-winning playwright Israel Horovitz, returns to Gloucester Stage Company where it had its world premiere in 1986. The show runs for three weeks.
Set in the Gloucester fish packing plant North Shore Fish, the action focuses on the workers, mostly women, for whom the plant represents far more than a job — it is a way of life that has been passed down for generations. But in the face of a tectonic shift in the fishing industry, their job security is vanishing.
The dialogue is edgy and the characters spicy, including a philandering plant manager and a government inspector who easily rebuffs the manager’s attempts at seduction. Always expect the unexpected with Horovitz, whose work teams with surprises.
In an unprecedented showing 27 years ago at Gloucester Stage, the play ran for six consecutive months before opening Off Broadway in New York City, thus beginning its journey around the world. The work was nominated for the New York Drama Desk Award as Best New American Play, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Although the play has serious undertones in Horovitz’s singular style, the characters’ conversation often leads to an outburst of laughter from the audience. In one instance, a worker named Florence yells to bring out more frozen fish to keep the line running. She says: “If those blocks melt, the fish’ll come back ta’ life and they are very pissed off about what we’ve be’n doin’ to ’em, I can tell ya’ that.”
Despite the joking and gossip that infuses the work day, the women become aware of a foreboding future.
The depletion of fish stocks, foreign competition and advancements in technology which reduce the need for manual labor all play a role in the plant’s downturn. The fish packing industry, once thriving as it processed the local fleet’s fresh catch, is reduced to repacking frozen fish imported from Japan. At North Shore Fish, they even cut the fish in a “fish-like” shape, which elicits repartee among the actors.
In an interview this week from England, Horovitz said the play was set in a fish processing plant because it served as a great stage image.
“The play is about a changing America and the end of working class life,” he said. “The storyline centers on a bunch of women who have been doing the same kind of work just like generations of women in their families. It’s also a play about the romance of working class life. The women have known each other since the cradle. They go to work each day and work side-by-side, chattering away, and they love their life.”
The drama encompasses every emotion from delight to dejection.
Working class roots
Horovitz, the son of a Wakefield truck driver who earned a law degree at night school, understands from experience the many facets of blue-collar life.
“Although Hopper and Sloane and Homer lived and painted in Gloucester, and T.S. Eliot and Charles Olson lived and wrote in Gloucester, Gloucester’s heroes never were and never will be painters or writers. Gloucester’s heroes are fishermen and carpenters. Gloucester is proud to be a working class town,” he wrote in a preface to the play.
The playwright has high regard for a fourth-generation cutter and packer who showed him the inner workings of a local fish-packing plant during his research, but North Shore Fish is a purely fictional entity he created.
When the play was produced in France, the title was “L’Amour dans une Usine de Poissons,” or “Love in a Fish Factory.”
Horovitz noted that for some 300 years, Gloucester was “first and foremost, a working-class city” and international seaport where residents’ livelihoods were tied to water, whether from fishing, working the wharves, or in the fish processing plants.
“These Gloucester-based plays have as their central ambition the showing of life as we live(d) it on our little dot on the planet Earth,” he wrote.
However, “North Shore Fish” reflects a sobering implosion of jobs for the waterfront working-class as a number of factors led to the demise of the fishing industry, and consequently the closure of many fish processing plants.
“I saw the death of the fishing industry back in the 1980s — and in one year, there were 40 trawlers that sunk,” Horovitz recalled.
He commented on the changing era in the preface when he wrote: “A fisherman could earn more money carrying a cigar box filled with cocaine than he could earn in a month of fishing.”
Horovitz describes the heart of the story as the “quantum relationship of loss of work to loss of hope,” and the impact on one’s dignity when his or her work is no longer useful.
That connection remains as relevant in 2013 as when the play premiered in 1986 because the remaining Gloucester fishing fleet continues to struggle in the face of increasing regulations even as the industry has been declared an economic disaster.
“This play is as valid then, if not more so now,” said Horovitz.
Birth of a play
“North Shore Fish” was the first production in Gloucester Stage Co.’s present venue at 267 E. Main St. off Smith Cove on the Inner Harbor of the nation’s oldest seaport. The professional theater company staged its first seven seasons at the Blackburn Tavern downtown, until a new owner spiked the rent, forcing the company to look for a new space.
“Gorton’s of Gloucester came to our rescue with an 175-by-175 foot abandoned warehouse space overlooking the harbor at Rocky Neck. The warehouse was filled with obsolete fish-processing equipment ... exactly what we needed for the set,” wrote Horovitz in an introduction to a book containing six of his plays of working-class life set in Gloucester.
They cleaned up the space, utilized the old equipment and brought in 100 seats.
Horovitz captures life on the island of Cape Ann, with dialogue that even today still rings true. When Florence tries unsuccessfully to go to the nearby Good Harbor Beach on her lunch break, she irately states: “Two million summah people, one to a car. I dunno why the hell they just don’t team up. I mean, none of us got there! We just sat on Bass Avenue maybe 35 minutes, I turned around.”
Gloucester Stage revived the powerful play in 1992, and in 1997 it was made into a television movie starring Mercedes Ruehl, Tony Danza and Wendie Malick.
For this production, Horovitz, the founding artistic director of Gloucester Stage, reunites with director Robert Walsh and Rockport resident and actress Nancy E. Carroll.
Walsh, on the faculty at ART/MXAT at Harvard and Brandeis University, directed Horovitz’s “The Widow’s Blind Date” in 2007 and “Fighting Over Beverley” in 2011. As an actor, Walsh appeared most recently in the 2009 world premiere of Horovitz’s award-winning “Sins of the Mother.”
Horovitz, now at work to direct a film of “My Old Lady” starring Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline, has a storied career. His dedication to the craft is as strong as a new mother’s devotion to her newborn child.
He is the most produced American playwright in French history, and is among the most prolific in this country with more than 70 plays. He estimates that more than 40 of his works have been translated into French. In 2012, he was decorated as Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest honor for foreign artists. His plays have been translated and performed in as many as 30 languages.
His play “Line” is now in its 40th year of continuous performance, Off Broadway, at 13th St. Repertory Theatre.
Carroll, a Gloucester Stage veteran who starred in Horovitz’s “My Old Lady” in 2005, plays the role of Arlyne, a worker in her late 50s, whose pregnant daughter also works at the plant.
“I love Arlyne,” Carroll said. “She is so content. She seems to have a clear vision of her life and she’s been working at North Shore Fish forever. As the characters talk about their histories, we learn how the jobs just continue on and are passed down generation after generation in kind of a legacy.”
Carroll said this is a very labor intensive play for actors. She recalled how she and her brother started working as teens during summers on Cape Ann. Her brother, in fact, worked unpacking frozen fish at North Atlantic Fish in town.
“It’s been a interesting process and I can’t wait to see how the audience reacts to it again after all these years,” said Carroll. “I love the line when I say ‘We are fish people. We are doing what we were born to do.’”
The remainder of the ‘North Shore Fish’ cast in their Gloucester Stage debuts is: Esme Allen as Marlena Vega, the new girl at the plant; Marianna Armitstead as Josie Evangelista; Brianne Beatrice as Ruthie Flynn, Arlyne’s pregnant daughter; Erin Brehm as Maureen Vega, Marlena’s cousin; Lowell Byers as Salvatore Morella, the plant manager; Thomas Phillip O’Neill, a grandson of ., as Alfred “Porker” Martino; and Aimee Doherty as Florence Rizzo. Therese Plaehn returns to play inspector Catherine Shimma.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go What: Israel Horovitz's "North Shore Fish." When: Tonight, July 18, through Aug. 4 Where: Gloucester Stage, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. How much: $40; $35 for senior citizens and students. There are certain discount nights. For reservations or more information, call the box office at 978-281-4433 or visit www.gloucesterstage.com.