Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the premier of “The Boatwright,” a new play by Richmond’s own Bo Wilson, performed at the historic Firehouse Theatre. Wilson, a celebrated playwright and Richmond local, currently sits as the resident playwright at Firehouse, a distinction not often seen in modern theater.
As a newcomer myself to the Richmond theater scene, I was pleasantly surprised by the Firehouse Theatre itself. Set inconspicuously amongst restaurants and shops along a busy portion of Broad Street, the humble entrance belies the warm entrance one finds just beyond the theater’s main door. While the building was once an actual firehouse, Station House #10 to be exact, it has been transformed since its decommission in 1993 into a warmly lit space that minimizes the high ceilings and narrow width that would have been inherent to a functioning firehouse. Today, the theater features a small lobby that opens to a gathering space anchored by a bar serving drinks and light snacks at the far end of the room. To the right sits the theater, an intimate, but surprisingly roomy space containing stadium seating.
I was lucky enough to have a seat near the front, providing a generous view of the stage. Scenic Director, Rich Mason, captured my attention instantly with the set – a fully stocked garage with all the accoutrement one would expect to find in any suburban “man cave,” as garages often are. Tools lined the walls, a slightly outdated refrigerator nestled amongst counter workspace and sawhorses stood at the ready. Only later would I realize just how much the realism of the set would lend to the play when the actors used actual power tools and the scent of sawdust permeated the air. The props master, Daniel Burgess, certainly deserves kudos for his work in this regard.
Set in Kansas, the play features Ben Callaway, played by David Bridgewater. Ben is a retired state trooper who, after the tragic loss of his wife, realizes that life is all too short. Faced with too much time on his hands, and too much regret for the time he lost while his wife was still alive, Ben decides to build a boat to fulfill the dream he and his late wife had of sailing on an ocean, that to date, he had never even seen.
The powerful second part to this beautifully crafted two-man show is Jaime, played by Tyler Stevens. Jaime is Ben’s neighbor, a recent college dropout (although not by choice) and a burgeoning filmmaker.
The play opens with an elegant soliloquy in which Callaway foreshadows many of the play’s themes – reflection, loss, loneliness, and grief. Once Jaime enters the garage, it doesn’t take long to realize that these two men, although separated by a generation, are both looking for meaning in a world that has ceased to make sense. Likewise, it becomes clear early in the script that Ben is not prepared for what the physical act of becoming a boatwright will teach him about his own humanity, nor is Jaime prepared for the role that his previously ambiguous neighbor will play in his life.
In a somewhat clichéd scenario, Ben takes on the role of father to Jaime, who himself is desperately looking for an anchor. Inevitably, the two men share their insights, fears, loneliness and longings. And while I use the term “clichéd,” which might imply a certain level of trite dialogue, Wilson masterfully avoids sounding canned throughout the play. His use of humor, relevant struggles and genuine human emotion elevates the dialogue from a replay of The Old Man In The Sea, and turns it in to a delightfully accessible recognition of the struggle that we all face to find meaning in the turmoil of life – whether it be freedom from grief or an anchor in the midst of millennial angst.
If anything, I would say that this play derives its greatest value from the use of irony. Two men, opposite in every regard find a bond. One man who had lived a life of predictable, logical, structured routine takes on an unexpected challenge and frees himself, in the most literal sense, as he builds a boat that he plans to sail on the open sea. The other, a free-spirited filmmaker and social media aficionado, recognizes the value of his older mentor’s advice: “A man decides what he wants to do…then gets busy doing it.” As Jaime makes a documentary of his unexpected friend’s project, he anchors himself in a path. Throughout the same process, Ben pulls himself from the weight of grief that had kept him tethered to his known surroundings and prepares himself for a life without boundaries.
Although Ben retains a strict Midwestern stoicism throughout the play, we are allowed to see his delicate vulnerability, a feat beautifully crafted by lighting director, Michael Jarett, and the use of pre-recorded video played during set changes. The videos were one of the most pleasant surprises for me. They not only lent a tangibility to the scripted element of Jaime’s documentary, they added a layer to the players themselves. Ben offered a softness that wasn’t always visible on stage and, as the audience, we were able to understand Jaime’s craft in a way that wasn’t possible in staged scenarios.
All in all, “The Boatwright” was a delight. It was not without its glitches, as to be expected on opening night. But the experience, skill and visible passion of the actors, director and supporting staff leaves me with little doubt that it will continue to evolve into a fluid allegory that teaches the audience to dream big, make a plan and “get busy doing it.”
I strongly recommend a viewing of “The Boatwright” for anyone looking to enjoy a quality night of local theater. While it is not ideal for younger audiences (there’s a little language and some of the meaning might go over the heads of the under 16 crowd), the energy between the actors, the set and the overall staging is not to be missed.
“The Boatwright” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm between now and February 25, with a talk back showing at 3pm on Sunday, February 26; an industry night at 7:30pm on Tuesday, February 28; and regular showings at 7:30pm for closing weekend on March 3rd and 4th. Visit the Firehouse Theatre for a complete listing of times, to purchase tickets or to see their amazing lineup of theater, music and art.