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Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)   
The Whaleship Essex

Written by Joe Forbrich  
Directed by Lou Contey
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
thru Oct 11  |  tickets: $15-$30   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
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When conventional morality becomes a luxury none can afford


Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)


Shattered Globe Theatre presents


The Whaleship Essex

Review by Catey Sullivan 

Imagine becoming so dehydrated you vomit scabs instead of blood. You would turn feral. You would become, in the words of one man on the doomed whaler The Essex, “the savages we most fear.”

Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)
Such is the harsh, desperate and riveting world created by Shattered Globe Theatre and playwright Joe Forbrich in The Whaleship Essex, an immersive tale of extreme brutality and transcendent humanity. Directed by Lou Contey and based on the extraordinary true story of an 1820 Nantucket whaling ship smashed to smithereens by a freakishly massive sperm whale, The Whaleship Essex ably straddles genres. It is at once a first-rate adventure story, a survivalist thriller and a meditation on depravity spawned by abject terror and the absence of hope.

If you haven’t read “Moby Dick” (and let’s be honest, who actually has read “Moby Dick”?), Forbrich’s rendering of the true story that inspired Melville’s beluga-sized novel provides a real-life history lesson that captures the toil, grime and enchanting beauty of 19th century seafaring life. From the weathered, fog-shrouded docks of Nantucket to the mast-tall swells roiling thousands of miles from shore, The Whaleship Essex is so richly atmospheric you’d swear you could smell the salt air and feel the heat of the sun bleaching your skin.

Forbrich wrote the play while working on Nantucket as an apprentice shipbuilder. It’s clear he paid close attention to the lore of the storied island and knows a thing or three about seafaring. Speaking on the authority of someone who has spent a good part of every summer since 1963 on Cape Cod, I’ll assert that all the details on stage are absolutely right.

Set designer Ann Davis perfectly captures the weathered, salt-box simplicity of Nantucket’s starkly beautiful historic homes as well as the creaking timbers of a tall-masted, 19th century whaling ship. Shelley Strasser Holland’s lighting design delivers the eerie half-light of Nantucket’s foggy dawns and dusks. Michael Stanfill’s wood-cut like projections cinematically reproduce the terrible, battering beauty of storms so ferocious they can snap a mast in two like a dried wishbone. Stanfill’s work here is reminiscent of Gustave Dore’s extraordinary illustrations for Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” (Google it, seriously. They’re amazing.)

Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)

As for the story swirling through these gorgeous design elements, nobody would believe it were it not historically verifiable. The 238-ton Essex was roughly 2,000 of miles off the coast of South America when a whale attacked the boat. As a general rule, whales don’t attack boats. But this whale moved with a targeted, awesome fury that indicated, fantastically, an animal capable and hellbent on vengeance. Once it had destroyed the Essex, the whale vanished back to the depths, never to be seen again.

The attack left the Essex crew adrift in tiny whaleboats with woefully inadequate food and water. Rescue was unlikely. Locating their boat, remarks one crew member in Forbrich’s gripping script, was akin to finding a single grain of salt within miles of sandy beach.

The ensemble delivers an engrossing narrative as it depicts the disintegration of the survivors into a state of snarling, feral panic. Forbrich centers the piece on Thomas Nickerson (Angie Shriner), a 14-year-old cabin boy making his first voyage. Shriner occasionally overplays the wide-eyed wonder and precocious childlike wisdom that defines Nickerson, but in young Tom, we get a striking contrast between youthful innocence and the hardened demeanor of the ship’s veteran salts including the bullwhip-wielding First Mate Owen Chase (Joseph Wiens), the nerdish ship’s doctor Matthew Joy (Josh Nordmark) and the steadfast, compassionate Captain George Pollard (Brad Woodard).

On-board tension begins long before the first spout is saluted with a bellowing “Thar she blows!” Pollard clashes with the sadistic Chase. Cocky young Charles Ramsdell (Drew Schad) displays a knack for instigating trouble. The crew is also divided along racial lines, demarcations that become ever more treacherously strident as the hunger engulfs the men and thirst reduces them to “thirsty barrels.”

Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)
Forbrich’s dialog deftly outlines the intractable socio-economic racism that was utterly taken for granted in the 19th century. Early on, there’s a simmering, resentful discussion among the African American hands over the fact that they earn half as much as their white counterparts. In a later, chilling exchange, the crew notes the fact that legally, the Black men are less than human. The implication of that discussion is horrific: Sacrificing Able Seaman Richard Peterson (Darren Jones), Purser William Bond (Alif Muhammad) or Carpenter Lawson Thomas (Lionel Gentle) wouldn’t really count as murder since they aren’t really people.

One of the strengths of Forbrich’s adaptation lies in its portrait of what happens when the security that comes with having one’s most primal needs met vanishes. When a mean of weevils urine becomes a banquet, when you’ve got to plug your leaky life boat with body parts from corpses, when staggering hopelessness is inescapable, the higher systems sputter out and the basest portion of the reptile brain kicks in. Forbrich graphically shows how conventional morality becomes a luxury none of the Essex crew can afford. Survival trumps all, and if that means drawing lots to see who will die in order to provide the next meal, so be it.

Forbrich bookends The Whaleship Essex with a pair of scenes set long after the Essex disaster. Two travelers seeking lodging on a foggy Nantucket night find an inn where the proprietor offers far more than a comfortable bed and a room lit by clean-burning oil. The final, perfect piece of dialog delivers a compact, didn’t-see-that-coming revelation about the Essex and its iconic, household-name familiar legacy.


Rating: ★★★½



The Whaleship Essex continues through October 11th at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $15-$30, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)

Review: The Whaleship Essex (Shattered Globe Theatre)

Photos by Emily Schwartz




Ben Werling (The Proprietor), Brad Woodard (Captain George Pollard), Joseph Wiens (First Mate Owen Chase), Angie Shriner (Thomas Nickerson), Steve Peebles (Boatsteerer Benjamin Lawrence), Drew Schad (Charles Ramsdell), Kevin Viol (Boatswain Isaac Cole), Josh Nordmark (Second Mate Matthew Joy), Bridget Schreiber (Nancy Coffin), Darren Jones (Able Seaman Richard Peterson), Jonathan Stutzman (Boatsteerer Thomas Chappel), Lionel Gentle (Carpenter Lawson Thomas), Zach Bloomfield (Boatsteerer Obed Hendricks), Alif Muhammad (Purser William Bond) Antonio Zhiurinskas (Owen Coffin).

behind the scenes

Lou Contey (director), Ann Davis (set design), Sarah Jo White (costume design), Shelley Strasser Holland (lighting design), J. J. Porterfield (sound design), Michael Stanfill (projection design), Vivian Knouse (props design), Christina Gorman (fight choreography), Judy Anderson (production manager), Amanda Rozmiarek (technical director, master carpenter), Susan Gosdick (dialect coach), Jeffrey Clark Stokes (stage manager), Brenda Bolden (assistant stage manager), Drew Schad (fight captain), Sandy Shinner (producing artistic director), Doug McDade (managing director), Jessica Howe (scenic painter), Jeff Wozniak, Kristof Janizec (master electricians), Joe Forbrich, Drew Schad, Steve Peebles, David Abramov, Colin David, Alejandro Treccani, Kat Warner, Larry Bundshu (build and light crew), Kelsey Melvin (graphic designer), Michael Brosilow, Emily Schwartz (production photographers), 119 Productions (videography), Julia Buckton (marketing intern)


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