“I’m the only Lady Luck you need!” says young Alex (Jade Schuyler) to her father (Paul Schuyler) near the beginning of the Tuna Goddess, and indeed the play centers around Alex’s presence—as a child, as a slightly bitter adult, and finally as a member of the fishing community—and how that presence translates into success.
Success fishing, of course: this is a quintessential Cape Cod fishing story, and there’s more than an echo here of last year’s wildly successful musical Boundless: the characters’ lives are all entwined with the sea: its weather, its waves, its harvest.
Alex grew up in Chatham, fishing with her father and learning what was “owed” to the tuna god. She left, though, to pursue a successful career in advertising, and now has returned for her father’s funeral. She’s greeted by friend and neighbor Deb (Julie Allen Hamilton) who draws Alex out about the rift that occurred between father and daughter. “He was just trying to stay afloat,” says Deb, looking for sympathy, but Alex isn’t buying it.
The adult Alex is in fact not a particularly sympathetic character at the start of the play. The flashbacks to her childhood on the fishing boat show a young girl filled with enthusiasm and delight, and the interactions between young Alex (played alternately by Maya Anastasio and Larkin Fox) and her father are magical: there’s a true sense of love and connection between these two. Schuyler is the perfect mix of paternal concern and fisherman gruffness, and it’s easy to see why traditions he established with Alex (a Hawaiian hula dancer on the boat, the custom of flinging a half-eaten Twinkie off the side to appease the tuna god) clearly touch her when she returns as an adult. But she returns to Chatham something of an entitled brat, and her lack of grief over her father’s death hints at something darker going on.
While Alex was gone, her father was fishing with local boy Pete (Lewis D. Wheeler), and he’s left half of the boat to Pete and the other half to Alex—who wants nothing to do with it. “Buy me out,” she urges Pete. She has a new life and a new fiancé to get back to, and everything about her, from her clothes to her carelessness around the pier, screams disinterest.
Pete, of course, can’t afford to buy her out, so the two embark on a season of fishing together for him to make enough money to own the boat. Some of the expected inevitable situations occur, sparks flying between them with an obvious attraction despite their determination to not like each other.
It turns out that the issues Alex had with her father are largely because of a ghost, the ghost of the mother that left, the person who was the true “tuna goddess” in the family’s life. That doesn’t get resolved, but Alex draws strength first from bitterness and then from understanding and slowly develops as a person throughout the play—she’s particularly likeable, oddly enough, in the scene in which she gets drunk—and the ending is surprisingly fresh.
Lewis D. Wheeler completely nails the character of Pete, from his accent to his lackadaisical approach to everything but fishing, his movements—a man who works with his body, is comfortable with it—and his sparse dialogue. His performance is understated next to Jade Schuyler’s, providing an obvious and appropriate contrast. Wheeler is of course a seasoned actor and continues to deliver outstanding performances.
One of the things that really works about this play is its première here on the Cape. There’s no one here who doesn’t understand the lives of those who live in a fishing village—and of those who flee from it. Director Art Devine plays on this strength: two other fishing characters, Sully (Noah Pelty) and Shawn (Ryan Sheehan) could have come straight off the pier at Chatham or Provincetown, and Devine has a definite feel for how they interact and move as well as for all the characters’ timing. Even when fiancé Richard (Anthony Teixeira) arrives to bring Alex “home,” Devine doesn’t lose that sense of how people from the city can be slightly off when in another environment, that it has less to do with what they say and more with how they move.
The set is pure joy (audience members remarked upon it more than once!). It’s simple and authentic and changes are done artfully and smoothly. Interspersed with the scenes is music that many of us remember from a few decades past—Pat Benatar, Crosby Stills & Nash, Stevie Nicks, James Taylor, and more—and adds a certain nostalgia to an already-nostalgic play about a way of life that has to be chosen and may not be around for many more years to come.
Photo Credit: Bob Tucker/Focalpoint Studio