It’s Blue Collar versus Blue Blood in “Gloucester Blue”

By Shelley A. Sackett

Latham (Robert Walsh) closes in on Lexi (Esme Allen).
All photos by Gary Ng

If the purpose of theater is to entertain, Israel Horovitz has hit the nail squarely on the head in Gloucester Stage’s New England premiere of his latest Gloucester-based play, “Gloucester Blue”. The founding artistic director of Gloucester Stage, who directs this production, introduced his new play last Saturday evening to a packed house that greeted him with affection and applause.

“Let’s see how you feel after the play,” he said, chuckling.

The internationally honored and acclaimed playwright need not have worried. His black comedy with more twists and turns than Route 127 left the audience cheering amid thunderous clapping.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

Latham and Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) get to know each other.

In a nutshell, a young super wealthy couple (Lexi Carrington and Bradford Ellis IV, aka “Bummy”) is restoring an abandoned former fishing cannery in Gloucester’s Fort area as their summer home and display space for their collection of antique cars. They hire local housepainter, Stumpy, to do the renovation. He in turn hires a friend-of-a-friend, Latham, when the couple wants the house in move-in condition earlier than they originally planned. Both workmen are from solid blue-collar backgrounds and grew up in the working waterfront neighborhood of Eastern Point.

The play opens with Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) and Latham (the electrifying Robert Walsh, whose performance is worth the price of admission) in the drop cloth-draped attic loft where they get to know each other as they plaster and spackle. Although they are kindred souls geographically, their spirits are anything but.

Stumpy favors National Public Radio and Latham, at least ten years his senior, is an Aerosmith devotee. In one of dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, Latham says, “NPR can make ice cream sound depressing.” First impressions prove deceiving throughout “Gloucester Blue”, and Latham’s unrefined patter belies a keen sense of observation and a razor sharp sense of self-preservation.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

Stumpy and Lexi brazenly flirt in front of the dumbfounded Latham.

The boisterous banter changes the instant Lexi (played by Esme Allen with a perfect, nasal Brahmin clenched jaw) shows up with paint samples. She is a knockout blond patrician clad head to heel in clothes that cost more than Latham and Stumpy’s week’s paychecks combined. From the get go, it is clear there is more than an employer-employee between her and Stumpy.

As Lexi complains to Stumpy about being sexually harassed earlier in the week, Latham relishes insulting Lexi as he mocks Stumpy. “I remember when harass was two words,” he says, clearly enjoying watching them squirm. Stumpy and Lexi get the upper hand when they ignore Latham and dash into the bedroom to “discuss renovation details.”

Latham continues to work, doing a slow burn that glows hotter with each passing minute. When Lexi’s husband, Bummy (played as a defeatist milquetoast by Lewis D. Wheeler) arrives, you can almost smell Latham’s scheming brain start to work overtime.

In addition to adultery, the noir-ish play brings in humor, a choreographed fight, blackmail, murder and betrayal. The plot coils and curls as secrets are spilled and transformed into lies and mayhem.


Bummy (Lewis D. Wheeler) gets a pointer from Latham.

The first half of the first act drags a bit as Stumpy and Latham establish their characters and stake their ground. Part of the problem is Solorzano’s flat and un-nuanced performance as Stumpy. Fortunately, Walsh is up to the task of taking up the slack. He brings physicality, impeccable timing and a believable delivery to Latham. Likewise, the choreographed fight between the two Gloucester workmen overstays its welcome.

Act two is another story, meandering into ridiculous plot twists and comedic staging. At times, it feels like we have wandered into a completely different play, one that resembles “Fractured Fairy Tales” form the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” more than a philosophical observation of class warfare between the 99- and 1-percenters.

“Gloucester Blue” is full of introspection, clever dialogue and inventive story lines. Most importantly, however, it is exceptionally entertaining. No doubt, its run in its home town will be as rousting a success as its previous runs in theaters in New York, Washington and Florida.


“Gloucester Blue” runs through October 3 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. Following the 2 p.m. performances Sunday, Sept. 20 and 27, audiences are invited to free post show discussions with the artists. For tickets go to or call 978-281-4433.


Gloucester Stage Company Hits It Out of the Park with “Out of Sterno”

Gloucester Stage Company is on a roll this summer. On the heels of its stunning “Sweet and Sad,” the North Shore venue offers up “Out of Sterno,” a dazzling production about female empowerment that is impossible not to like. This is one you will not want to miss.

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play features Dotty, a 23-year-old who has spent the last seven years of marriage sequestered in her apartment, occupying her days in ways that would make Pee Wee Herman feel right at home. Dotty’s “playhouse” includes toys, gadgets and puppet characters (although her appliances and furniture don’t talk, which is too bad since Dotty believes everything she is told, and even a chair would have better advice to offer than her mother’s).


Amanda Collins as Dotty replays the first time she met her husband.

She has a crafts table where she constructs kindergarten art projects based on domesticity and a VCR where she watches re-enactments of her first meeting with Hamel, her perfect husband who has forbidden her to leave the apartment or answer the phone. The rest of her day is spent doing laundry and preparing the same dinner for Hamel — a smiley-faced hamburger. Although this is Sterno, not Puppetland, Dotty and Pee Wee are two peas in an infantile pod, their exaggerated cheer at times bordering on hysteria.

Dotty’s hermetic world is unsealed the day she receives a mysterious phone call and finds a nude girlie picture in Hamel’s grease monkey overalls. Her ordered world is suddenly topsy-turvey. She decides to disobey Hamel and track down the truth.

Once she leaves her apartment, our modern-day Dorothy discovers she is not in Kansas anymore. “Life was so much simpler when I never left the apartment,” she rues.

Her yellow brick road leads her first to Zena (a force to be reckoned with as played by Jennifer Ellis), the she-devil beautician who gives Dotty a primer in what womanhood can look like. The textbook is “Beautiful or Bust” magazine and the uniform includes false boobs, a wig and stilettos guaranteed to lead to debilitating foot problems. It also includes tutelage in Zena’s tried-and-true method to make it as a woman in a man’s world: steal another woman’s husband.
By way of illustration, Zena tells Dotty she has sunk her razor-sharp claws into potential husband number six. Before Dotty realizes that it is her own Hamel whom Zena is prattling on and on about snatching, she too falls under Zena’s foul-mouthed spell, finding womanly self-worth and identity by wearing Zena’s animal print jumpsuits and scrubbing her salon’s toilets with a toothbrush.


Amanda Collins (Dotty) finds female fulfillment scrubbing Zena’s toilets with a toothbrush.

Dotty meets many characters no less colorful than Conky, Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne while on her quest for the meaning of womanhood. Richard Snee plays each of these cameo roles with relish and panache. These include a cabbie, a professor, other beauty shop clients, and Dotty’s new “bus buddies” — a militant feminist, a pregnant Southern lady and a geeky salesman.

Each offers her a manifesto, a code of ethics and a dress code. Like the blind men feeling the elephant in the Indian parable, each has his or her narrow, subjective perspective based on a single experience that fails to account for other possible truths or for a totality of truth.

Photo_16_8754Little by little, Dotty starts to realize that, while each of these guides can help her learn something about herself, only she holds the key that can unlock the mystery of her authentic self.

The extraordinary Amanda Collins as Dotty is reason enough to see the show. She effortlessly brings to the role an openness of curiosity and naïvité (think the un-raunchy elements of Lena Dunham); a slapstick wacky physicality (think Lucille Ball) and an exceptionally expressive face (think pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan). Her delivery is flawless and she radiates an inner light that draws the audience’s attention like a moth to a flame.

Paula Plum’s direction is full of surprises, such as props falling from the ceiling, and jaw-dropping brilliance, such as the staging of the final scene. The music has the breeziness of “The Pink Panther” and “Mad Men” and the set designs make creative use of overhead projectors, billowing curtains and backlit shadows.

“Out of Sterno” is particularly relevant in the wake of such “news” as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover that shows her authentic female self. As Plum notes in the playbill, “I found it intriguing that Jenner displayed herself through the lens of Beauty Culture: corseted, provocative and heavily made-up. The transformation of this former Olympic athlete to femme fatale poses the question: what makes a ‘real woman’? Is it the sum of our exterior parts?”

Sounds like Jenner should make a trip to Gloucester; Dotty could teach her a thing or two.

Pictured at top: Jennifer Ellis (as Zena), Richard Snee (as beauty shop patron) and Amanda Collins (as Dotty)

“Out of Sterno” runs through July 18 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. For tickets go to or call 978-281-4433.

Summer Stages Beckon

 Even on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, there is something summery about the opening day of the summer theater season. The North Shore is blessed with two stellar companies, Gloucester Stage and Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre, that have offered theatergoers the chance to see professional productions without having to traipse into Boston for a combined 97 years.

Under the skillful direction of Weylin Symes, Gloucester Stage, in collaboration with Stoneham Theatre, opens its season with “Sweet and Sad”. The production introduces us to the five members of the fictional Apple family, who are at the center of four plays by American playwright Richard Nelson. “Sweet and Sad” is the second in the chronological series. All are set in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and all focus on either an election or a significant historical anniversary.

In “Sweet and Sad”, the Apple family assembles uncomfortably on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (the New York Public Theater opening night was actually September 11, 2011). Although the family members — siblings Marian, Barbara, Jane and Richard, and their Uncle Benjamin — spend less time talking about the events of 9/11 than their own personal histories, the significance of the day officially devoted to loss and remembrance casts an indelible shadow.

Even though Barbara (Karen MacDonald whose nuanced performance brings to mind Diane Wiest at her finest), a schoolteacher whose Rhinebeck home hosts the family brunch, early on states that the day is not one to talk politics, the reason for the gathering is to attend a commemoration her students will perform that evening. Uncle Benjamin, who moved in with caretaker Barbara after his brilliant acting career was cut short by a heart attack that left him amnesiac, will read Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”.

Marian, also a teacher, has just moved in with Barbara, seeking refuge from a recent separation from her husband. Manhattanites Richard, a Wall Street lawyer, and Jane, a writer, round out the family. Tim, Jane’s sometimes boyfriend and an actor currently relegated to waiting tables, walks the fine line between blending in and being unobtrusive.

It’s hard to know where to start praising this production.

The lights rise on a large set that makes good use of the entire stage and yet also creates an intimate dining room setting for the family to share a late lunch and squabble. Each actor embodies his role with a stunning naturalism, breathing life and depth into his role. The same cast staged the first of the four-part Apple family plays, “Hopey Changey,” earlier at Stoneham Theater, and their obvious comfort with each other is the stuff stellar ensemble acting is all about. They are so physically at ease that the audience really does feel like it’s eavesdropping on a family reunion.

Symes, producing director at Stoneham, brings a light but quirky touch to the show, allowing the characters to explore their characters’ eccentricities and individuality without jeopardizing the cohesive fabric of their shared histories. Watching the siblings interact as adults, you can imagine what they must have been like as kids. And having the actors really eat real food (in some cases going back for seconds) is nothing short of brilliant.

Which brings us last, but hardly least, to Nelson’s script. In fewer than two intermission-less hours, he lets us through the keyhole to glimpse a family’s most perilous secrets while making us think about such broad and weighty topics as: the roles of memory and memorials; what drives young people to suicide; and the state of the nation. The characters overlap and interrupt and answer for each other with the familiarity of broken thoughts and familial patterns. We witness the passive-aggressive, judgmental and ultimately supportive Apple family dance. His dialogue (and its flawless delivery) points to as much what is not said as to what is.

The only time all the Apples manage to sit still and listen quietly is when Uncle Benjamin practices reading “The Wound-Dresser”. Whitman’s poem is a tribute to the memory of the Civil War soldiers he tended during his time as a nurse, but when we hear, “I sit by the restless all the dark night; some are so young, some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,” he could be talking about the Apple family today.

Pictured at top: Karen MacDonald (Barbara Apple) makes her sisterly point with Laura Latreille (Jane Apple Halls).

(Photo by GARY NG)

“Sweet and Sad” is at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main St. through June 20. For tickets, go to or call 978-281-4433.

Between Avraham and Ibrahim: Interview with “In Between” author Ibrahim Miari

Ibrahim Miari

Ibrahim Miari’s one-man show, “In Between” is a 5-course dramatic feast. It starts with the hypnotic pageantry of Miari’s Sufi dervish dancing and ends with his intercultural marriage to Sarah Goldberg, a Jewish Buddhist. In between, there is a larger-than-life puppet, hypnotic dumbek drumming, and lightening speed changes of character, place, time and emotion.

The play is also a petri dish for every conceivable political, religious and intercultural discussion on the subject of Israel and the Middle East. Miari grew up in Acco, Israel, the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and Palestinian Muslim father. His spellbinding autobiographical story, told with piercing insight and candor, repeatedly raises our awareness by putting us in the unfamiliar shoes of an Israeli who carries a passport stamped “Arab.”

As an Arab Israeli, Miari explains to his audience, he’s not Israeli enough because he’s a Muslim through his father (Islam is patrilineal); he’s not Arab enough because he’s a Jew through his mother; and he’s not Palestinian enough because he doesn’t live on the West Bank.

“I am a 1948 Arab,” his character declares, referring to Arabs who settled in Israel after the War of Independence. “I’m a demographic problem. I’m an inside Arab- an Israeli citizen. I am a ticking bomb-the ultimate security risk.”

Miari is also Ishmael grafted onto Isaac. Born Avraham, at 7 he attended a Jewish school and won the costume contest for Purim, his (and his mother’s) favorite Jewish holiday. By age 8, he was Ibrahim, enrolled at an Arabic school where Israeli Independence Day was celebrated as Nakba Day, the “Day of the Catastrophe”. He identified with everyone and with no one; he was a community of one.

Before moving to the United States in 2005, Miari was a member of the Acco Theatre Center Ensemble for nearly 12 years, acting and dancing in ensemble based projects for both young and adult audiences throughout Israel, Europe and the United States. He also performed solo shows in Hebrew, Arabic and English. An accomplished Sufi dancer and sacred dances instructor, he has directed the drama program at several peace camps in Canada and US with high school age Israeli and Palestinian youth.

In fact, it was while running such a program at a Canadian peace camp for young Israelis and Palestinians that he met his wife Sarah. Their subsequent search for a clergy to marry them gave Miari terrific material. He mesmerizes the audience with skill and satire as his Bread-and-Puppet sized silk cloud of a puppet transforms from imam to rabbi to Buddhist priest, each declining the young couple’s request to officiate their ceremony for ironically similar reasons.

Shelley A. Sackett with Ibrahim Miari at Arsenal Center for the Art’s NewRep Black Box Theater.

Reached at home by phone, Miari articulated why he has not published his play. “It is still a work in progress,” he said of the work that began as his MFA thesis project while attending Boston University’s Theater Education program. “(Not publishing) it allows me to change it as I grow as an artist and a performer. I improvise as I see fit in the moment, according to the energy in the room and current events.” By example, he recalled performing at MIT shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing last year. When his character likened being an “inside Arab” in today’s world to a “ticking bomb”, Miari sensed how the weight and immediacy of that line moved the audience. He paused along with them, incorporating that instant into that performance.

“All of a sudden, I took them to my story and I brought them back to reality. I am in the show and I am in the moment. This play is so personal to me and to my experience that no one else but me could perform it.”

Although his play is autobiographical, he had to invent the way his parents met because his mother wouldn’t tell him the true story. “After watching the DVD (“In Between” has yet to be staged in Israel), my mother said ‘You see? That’s why I didn’t tell you!’” Miari laughed. She remains silent on the subject to this day, although she is as supportive and understanding of her son in real life as she is portrayed in the play.

Miari prefers not to talk about politics (“My opinion about what is happening in Palestine is expressed in my work”), but he offers that the road to a peaceful resolution in Israel is as complicated as it is simple. “It is simple because people need to acknowledge that the violence, occupation and suffering needs to stop, and then they need to have the intention to go towards a solution. It is complicated because most people are unwilling to talk and because there is a lot of ignorance on both sides.”

On a happier note, he pondered what his daughter might take away from “In Between.” “I hope she would see that we’re all one, that this world is so much more than religion and politics. That you should live your life the way it suits you and not try to accommodate anyone.”

While Ibrahim Miari’s story and background may be unique, he echoes what every parent of every nationality and every religion says about every one of his children. “I just want her to be happy.”

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