BANGOR – A tale of a Maine paper mill written by a Maine playwright on a Maine stage – that’s the latest from Penobscot Theatre Company.
PTC’s latest production is “Papermaker,” the first play from Maine novelist Monica Wood. The story of one small town’s struggles during a mill strike has landed on the Bangor Opera House stage; the show – directed by Daniel Burson - runs through April 2.
“Papermaker” will likely ring familiar to local audiences; the now-declining paper industry was a vital part of the area economy for decades. The workers who made the product, the businessmen who owned the mills, the towns that were essentially built by paper – all are represented in Wood’s script.
The year is 1989. The papermakers at the paper mill in the small town of Abbott Falls, Maine have gone on strike in hopes of securing a better situation for themselves and the men who follow them. Negotiations have been difficult and circumstances are growing dire; the strike has been ongoing for months and the corporate powers that be have brought in scab labor to keep the mill running.
Ernie Donahue (James Herrera) has worked at the Abbott Falls mill for 40 years. The strike has been wearing on him – particularly since his wife Marie (AJ Mooney) is suffering through the later stages of pancreatic cancer. Partly to keep himself busy (and partly to distract his wife), Ernie is building an ark in his yard. Ernie and Marie have a son named Jake (Daniel Kennedy); he’s a brand-new father to a baby girl and struggling to make ends meet thanks to the extended nature of the strike.
Meanwhile, Henry John McCoy (Doug Meswarb) – the owner of the mill and the management side of this particular equation – is living in New York City and anxiously awaiting the ruling on yet another court action, one that will almost certainly ensure that he is victorious over the unexpectedly stubborn Abbott Falls crew. He is also a widower in the process of trying to rebuild his relationship with his poetry-loving, clinical psychology PhD-pursuing daughter Emily (Emily Shain).
Two families, both trapped in the middle of a protracted battle. Two men, both sure that they are doing the right thing and neither willing to concede a single solitary inch. In the midst of it all, choices are being made that will drastically impact the lives of everyone involved. And when the orbits of these two families intersect physically as well as situationally, there’s no way to know just how things will play out. In short, it’s unclear who will win … or if anyone will.
There’s an intimacy to the drama of “Papermaker” that marks a nice contrast from the bombast of PTC’s most recent offerings (the kiddie classic “Oliver!” and the musical romp “Lumberjacks in Love”). Grounded in realism and driven by familial dynamics, this show offers a quieter (but no less impressive) entertainment. The relationships portrayed here – along with the topicality of the subject matter – are effective and engaging.
The reason those relationships are so impactful is the quality work being done by the cast. The story is emotionally centered by the binary pairing of Ernie and Henry; Herrera and Meswarb manage to orbit one another beautifully, each man creating a similar sensibility despite moving in different, often opposing directions. Herrera’s workmanlike Ernie wears his earthiness on his sleeve, unapologetic about the sort of man he is and the man he hopes his son will become. Meswarb, on the other hand, gives us a staid, sedate portrait of someone willing to fight for the big picture despite the sad realities of the smaller one.
Mooney’s Marie is a seemingly never-ending well of goodhearted reserve, offering up both a brave face and a healthy dose of common sense. Her resolve is unassailable and her moral compass is unwavering; in many ways, she’s the conscience of the story. Shain imbues Emily with a palpable desire to come to terms with her relationship with her father, yet that undeniable need never once veers into the realm of desperation. Even at her lowest points, there’s a real dignity to the character – Shain does fine work in bringing that forth. Kennedy gives Jake a headstrong enthusiasm that occasionally gets perhaps a touch too strident, but the energy the actor brings is welcome. And Jen Shepard, as neighbor Nancy Letourneau, makes good use of her relatively brief moments, bringing a bright engagement and humor that is thrown into sharp relief by bursts of visceral and surprisingly deep-seated anger.
Director Burson has done strong work here, building a tight ensemble and creating an ever-shifting stage picture; the blocking seems charged with the sort of pent-up energy that one imagines filling those trapped in months-long labor strife. Scenic designer Chez Cherry’s set allows for the shifting locations while also remaining solidly grounded; the Donahue home offers some surprise functionality (and the skeleton of the ark looks great). Jonathan Spencer’s lighting design is the key to the delineation of the varied locations, creating whatever separations are necessary with practical lighting and clean, crisp spots. Kevin Koski’s costumes are nicely understated, evoking the late 1980s without being over-the-top overt about it. Brandie Larkin continues to work wonders as PTC’s resident sound designer – especially in the small moments – and Belinda Hobbs’s prop design is solid as well.
“Papermaker” is a quality dramatic work from a talented Maine author. It is a play that will almost certainly resonate with local audiences, people who have seen firsthand the impact that a paper mill – and its absence – can have on a community. But even those with no connection to the industry will find themselves drawn to this story. After all, the successes and struggles that come with family, well … they’re universal.