“Swept Away”: Macho Whalers vs. Christian Farmboys—at Berkeley Rep
John Logan, Avett Brothers Team Up for a Country Musical
by Patricia L. Morin & Barry David Horwitz
In their 2004 album “Mignonette,” The Avett Brothers sing the fate of a sinking ship. Their new country musical depicts 1880s pioneering American men who are searching for meaning, so they risk work as sailors on one of the last whaling ships.
“Swept Away” attempts to create a Christian fable from New England history. The show wavers between sea story, horror tale, and myth.
The first half tells a familiar story of macho whalers in the dying whale trade, proud of their bravery, but nasty and rude. The second half unearths the true story of a horrible shipwreck and what happens to the four survivors.
Instead of names, the four main characters are called Mate, Captain, Little Brother, and Big Brother—turning this history-based horror story into a Biblical parable.
Designer Rachel Hauck’s set morphs from a dying man’s hospital bed into a magnificent wooden-hulled sailing vessel. With muscular sailors dancing on the sturdy deck, the ship embodies the rough life of men at sea.
But in the inevitable storm, the wooden whaling ship rises slowly into the air to hover upside down over the sea, taking our breath away. As we gaze up at its cross-beamed and mirrored wooden hull, the ship becomes a spectacular vision. Hauck’s ship and Kevin Adams’ lighting make a magnificent display, and we realize how, in a flash, the world can go topsy-turvy.
After the shipwreck, writer John Logan and director Michael Mayer take us on a gripping psychological and spiritual quest, adding an undertow that questions our ideas about “identity” and “freedom.”
A terrible struggle looms between the cynical whalers and idealistic farmers. The sailors scowl at the newly arrived farm boys, Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and Big Brother (Stark Sands), who preach the old-time religion. Clinging to their dying trade, the whalers scoff at the idea of Christian redemption.
The Devil and God are at war in the shocking climax.
The self-hating Mate (John Gallagher, Jr.) ridicules Big Brother’s Sunday vigil and his soft religious song “Lord, Place Your Hand on My Shoulder.” The talented crew replies with in their foot-stomping song, “There ain’t no man can save me. / There ain’t no man can enslave me.”
Adrift in a beautiful lifeboat, the second half shocks and surprises. Yet Mate breaks the fourth wall and asks us, “What would you do?” relishing his role as Narrator. Forlorn Mate refuses to abandon the old way of life, ending with the dynamic song “Satan Pulls my Strings.”
If you enjoy country music, first-rate acting, and out-of-this world design, “Swept Away” is worth the voyage.
“Swept Away” –book by John Logan, music & lyrics by The Avett Brothers, directed by Michael Mayer, scenic design by Rachel Hauck, lighting design by Kevin Adams, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Info: BerkeleyRep – to March 8, 2022.
Cast: John Gallagher, Jr., Stark Sands, Adrian Blake Enscoe, and Wayne Duvall.
Ensemble: Taurean Everett, Cameron Johnson, Ben Toomer, Vishal Vaidya, and Jacob Keith Watson.
Banner photo: (front) John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate); (second row) Cameron Johnson, Taurean Everett, Jacob Keith Watson, and Vishal Vaidya; (back row) Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) and Stark Sands (Big Brother). Photos by Kevin Berne