By Ray Lamont
---- — With the fishing industry in a deep, downward spiral, a fish packing plant on the Gloucester waterfront is shutting down, leaving a longtime workforce, largely female, high and dry in the docks.
That scenario, the focal point of a theatrical work by Gloucester playwright Israel Horovitz, could easily be playing out on the docks today, with Gloucester’s groundfishermen facing unprecedented limit cuts of up to 77 percent in Gulf of Maine cod for the new fishing year that begins May 1. Yet it was written by Horovitz in 1986, when his “North Shore Fish” made its world premiere at the Gloucester Stage Company.
This summer, art will once again imitate life, when – with the fishing industry again in crisis — Horovitz’s “North Shore Fish” will be played out at Gloucester Stage amid a season that also includes the classic “Driving Miss Daisy.” (see more coverage and full schedule, Page 9).
“It’s as Gloucester as Gloucester gets,” Gloucester Stage Artistic Director Eric Engel said of “North Shore Fish,” which will run over the course of three weeks from July 18 through Aug. 4. “It doesn’t – and couldn’t — get anymore Gloucester than this.”
Yet while Engel recognizes the social and economic relevance of the piece, he concedes that wasn’t the primary reason for choosing to present it this year — literally debuting 2 1/2 months into what many expected to be a dire season for commercial groundfishing and fresh cod being landed on Gloucester’s Inner Harbor.
“I chose it primarily because I think it is a really terrific play,” said Engel, who also serves as manager/director of Harvard University’s Sanders Theater/Memorial Hall in Cambridge. “The fact that is about what it is about is a bonus.
“It’s the piece from (Horovitz’s) cannon of work that’s deserving or revival,” Engel added, “and that’s what we’re looking to do — all the while presenting a work that is timely and relevant as well.”
The play is part of a rotating Gloucester Stage showcase of the works of Horovitz, who was a founder of the theater and who is arguably America’s most prolific contemporary playwright, with more than 70 works. Gloucester Stage’s summer season features a Horovitz piece every other year – and in 2009, closed its run with the powerful “Sins of the Mother.” That play, also set in the 1980s, is initially set in a Gloucester waterfront union hall with the declining fishing industry again as a backdrop, and out-of-work fishermen and dock workers in a city in the grips of a heroin scourge and other drug and social problems.
The actor at the center of “Sins of the Mother” was Robert Walsh, who returns to direct this year’s “North Shore Fish.”
“He and Israel have done great work together,” Engel said.
And the play — also reprised at Gloucester Stage in 1994 — will star Rockport’s own Nancy E. Carroll, a Boston theater critics’ Elliot Norton Award winner whose prior Gloucester Stage roles have included the mother superior in 2009’s powerful “Doubt: A Parable,” the 2008 piece “Going to St. Ives,” and 2010’s “The Breath of Life,” alongside Paula Plum.
“The play takes place in a fish packaging plant, and it’s about a group of people — primarily women — who have worked in the packaging industry for a long time,” Engel says, “and they’re working on an assembly line in a plant that’s on the verge of going out of business and their jobs gong overseas.
“It’s a wonderful collection of determined, colorful, often combative people — some of whom (including Carroll’s character) have worked there their entire lives,” Engel said. “Ultimately, it’s about how loyal they are to one another, to their families — and to what they do for a living.
“I hope that people find it worthwhile and inspiring,” Engel said, “and I think it’s a real tribute — to the industry, to its history in Gloucester, and especially to the women who are the true backbone of this particular industry.”
Times Editor Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3438, or at email@example.com.