Twenty years ago, Emma Walton Hamilton, her husband Steve Hamilton, and their friend and colleague Sybil Christopher realized a dream when they opened the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York. (Note: the article about Sybil Christopher, from 1994, is very long, but is fascinating, uplifting reading. Take the time to drink it in.)
Bay Street Theatre stands at the conjunction of Bay Street and Main Street at the top of Long Wharf in the charming town of Sag Harbor, which is part of the Hamptons area on Long Island. It is a beautiful setting. The view from Long Wharf is the perfect mood-setter for the play I saw, Men’s Lives.
When Emma, Steve and Sybil opened their new theatre, the first play they mounted was Men’s Lives, written by Joe Pintauro (dramaturg/editor Emma Walton Hamilton), directed by Christopher A. Smith, with set design by Tony Walton. Twenty years later, in celebration of the anniversary of the theatre (although Emma and Steve have gone on to other things) Bay Street Theatre is staging a revival of Men’s Lives, directed by Harris Yulin, with set design by Drew Boyce. I was privileged to see a performance on July 15, 2012.
An article from the East Hampton Star by Bridget LeRoy brings the heart and spirit of the original production to life. Bridget tells in evocative word-pictures the story of Joe Pintauro and Emma Walton Hamilton working together to capture the experience of the fisherfolk in words, while Tony Walton’s memories of creating the set cause one to catch one’s breath in wonder. I had all this in mind as I watched the story unfold before me in the theatre.
The play was performed on the floor right in front of the audience. I was seated in the center section, row F, and I could hardly have wished for a better seat. I was disappointed that the theatre was not full. But then, the play had been running for a couple of weeks by that time, and Sunday night is likely not the most popular time to go to a play.
The set design was incredibly evocative, and I’m sure owed more than a little to Tony’s original design. There were little “dunes” of sand in a few places on the floor/stage, real sand, that gave the effect of beach. There was an old broken-down half of a fishing dory hauled up on the sand, and it was used in various ways to depict various things, boat, house, courtroom. I wondered if it was the same boat-skeleton that Tony spoke of finding on the beach for the set design of the original production. (See Bridget’s article.)
The play itself was moving and powerful. It told the story of one family who had fished that area since native Americans taught their forebears to sein-haul fish. It told of the struggles against nature, as the sea fought them for every fish they gleaned from its depths. It told also of the struggles with corporations and governments. Sein nets were outlawed, because sport fishers claimed they were taking too many fish and destroying the environment. The fishermen who had lived there for generations knew that the fish stocks would go in cycles, but the sport fishermen had a strong lobby, and they won out. The same sports fishermen would sell their catch to local restaurants, undermining the local fishers’ ability to make a living. With the outlawing of sein-hauling, the local fishers’ livelihood was wrenched away, like a net torn into tatters that no one could mend.
As well as the cruelty of the human forces, we also saw the cruelty of the sea, as it claimed the life of the youngest son in one scene, and took the lives of two others in another scene. It was entitled Men’s Lives — it also dealt with their deaths. The cast of five men, one boy and one woman were all excellent in their roles. I will long remember how they took me to the world of the fisherfolk, how the waves of the emotion and experience of those people washed over me and left me changed, for change is the way of waves, both of feeling and of ocean.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity of seeing this particular play in this particular place. And I know the waves will draw me back.