By Annette Hinkle
Twenty years ago this month, Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre opened its doors for the very first time with the world premiere of a brand new play — “Men’s Lives.” Based on Sagaponack author Peter Matthiessen’s book of the same name, the play, by Sag Harbor playwright Joe Pintauro, told the stories of the baymen of the East End using the voices of those who made their living from the sea.
It was – and remains – a poignant story revolving around the working class fishermen of this area. The Bonackers may be the East Hampton High School mascot, but their namesake comes from the men and boys who, like their fathers before them, plied these waters for hundreds of years in search of striped bass, scallops, clams and other bounty of the sea. Their methods can be traced back to Native Americans who taught the English settlers to fish, thereby survive the harsh conditions of the New World.
But at the time of the play’s premiere, the baymen of the East End were facing unprecedented pressures as government regulations threatened their way of life. Politics and passion collided in the news, while onstage, the play struck a chord. Performances were sold out that entire summer, beginning with the very first show.
This week, Bay Street Theatre opens a reprisal of “Men’s Lives.” Much has changed in the world — both locally and abroad —in the intervening two decades since the play’s premiere, and not, generally speaking, for the better. Most of the real-life fishermen whose voices found their way into Pintauro’s play have passed on or moved away, unable to hand-down their way of life to the next generation. We have also seen this country attacked, engaged in two wars on the far side of the globe and experienced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
All of which makes the messages in “Men’s Lives” even more profound in 2012.
Bay Street producer Murphy Davis was there at the theater’s beginnings and feels the play is a natural choice for this summer’s mainstage season, given what the theater itself has gone through in recent months. Uncertainty about Bay Street’s future — and the need for a permanent home — dominated discussions on the East End this past winter. Finally, in late April, the theater announced it had renewed its lease in the Long Wharf space under terms that provide for the stability needed to plan for the future.
“It’s been 20 years, yes, but a big part of the impetus was the fact this may have been the last season in this space,” explains Davis on the choice of “Men’s Lives.” “It’s a way of honoring what Joe honors in the play, and also what this theater has been and what we’ve created here.”
“We felt there couldn’t be a more appropriate away to do this.”
For Davis, the stars aligned in the 1992 production of “Men’s Lives,” giving birth to the theater while simultaneously bringing attention to a threatened segment of the East End in a way that, for him, seemed almost magical.
“There was no better way to open this theater. It was untried and it was like being shot out of the cannon,” says Davis who recalls sponging paint on the bathroom walls with cofounders Emma Walton Hamilton, Stephen Hamilton and Sybil Christopher just hours before opening night. “That first night, I remember standing on the stage to give the first preshow speech. I said, ‘This is the first time in the theater something could go wrong.’ Immediately the lights went out. I bantered for 10 to 15 minutes until they came back on.”
“And it sold out the entire run,” adds Pintauro. “Then you opened up with it the next season for another sold out run.”
“I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t have that affect this time,” says Davis.
Though the play was a hit, Pintauro admits it took some time to come up with the right format for it. Ironically, he had written a script for “Men’s Lives” prior to Bay Street’s opening, but had set it aside, feeling that the structure didn’t really work. It was theater co-founders Emma Walton Hamilton and husband Stephen Hamilton who were instrumental in getting him to take another look and really turn it into the theatrical piece it is today. Emma, he notes, acted as dramaturge and helped develop the script through numerous drafts. Not an easy task, as Pintauro recalls.
“It was a struggle to figure out how to make a play out of the book,” confides Pintauro. “I went out and talked to some of the people in it, but the play was more of a presentational offering of these things. It never coalesced into anything that would be of interest. It was certainly not theatrical.”
“So I decided to get outside the book and come to it that way,” he adds. “I decided to make the play about Peter [Matthiessen] writing the book for the purpose of illuminating the lives of these wonderful people.”
And, as Pintauro explains it, one of the key elements that made the whole play come together was the addition of a single character.
“I wanted a woman in the mix,” he says. “I thought this has to be because they shared everything — the consequences, the bounty and the difficulties of life — and sometimes they are the ones that hold it together.”
During his research, Pintauro had spoken to the mother of a fisherman, and he embodied the woman’s experience in the character of Alice, the matriarch, wife and mother who is left onshore to keep it all together. She was played by Sloan Shelton in the 1992 production.
“But between you and me, it never coalesced until one day I got an idea for Lee’s monologue at the end,” says Pintauro. “It’s about the whole heart and soul of the fish, the striped bass and the lives of these men, the affection for the work, the romance of the ocean, the dory … the daily work.”
Though it deals with very local issues, in the years since its premiere, “Men’s Lives” has found a wider audience and has been performed in coastal areas around the country — including Florida, California and Massachusetts, where similar issues have affected the fishing population. All these years later, Pintauro and Davis feel the script still strikes a chord against the backdrop of current events — particularly in light of today’s massive unemployment and the plight of the 99 percent.
“We talk jobs, but not about men’s lives,” says Pintauro. “What people do is of their soul, of their character and it’s how they imagine themselves and who they are. They call it a job – and you’re fired. Who understands the consequences in the mind, soul and heart of people who have to face that?”
“It’s a job, but it’s also what we all strive for,” adds Davis. “Meaning a job that’s a way of life — a vocation which a lot of folks have gotten away from. A vocation makes you feel alive and who you are.”
“I really believe what Joe has infused this play with is a spirituality and that’s why it is universal, why it resonates just as profoundly today above and beyond the issues,” says Davis. “It’s what human existence is about, and one of the things I find deeply moving about the piece. It’s a community we are aware of out here but it’s bigger than all of us.”
“It’s rare that you come across a piece of theater that does it so well.”
“Men’s Lives” is directed by Harris Yulin and runs July 3 to 29 at the Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Tickets are $56 to $66 available at the box office, online at www.baystreet.org or by calling the 725-9500. The Box Office is open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to showtime and Sunday, 3 p.m. to show time. The “Pay What You Can” performance will be Tuesday, July 3, with a limited number of tickets are available after 2 p.m. at the box office only based on availability. Hospitality Workers Nights are Wednesday, July 4 and Thursday, July 5. Tickets are $20 at the box office with proof of employment; based on availability.
Top: Alan North, Jay Peterson, Mark Blum, and David Eigenberg in the original 1992 production of “Men’s Lives” at Bay Street Theatre.