GSC’s revived ‘North Shore Fish’ still packs punch

Sal (Lowell Byers) and Porker (Thomas Phillip O'Neill) confront each other in a scene from "North Shore Fish." Photo: Gary Ng.

Sal (Lowell Byers) and Porker (Thomas Phillip O’Neill) confront each other in a scene from “North Shore Fish.” Photo: Gary Ng.

GLOUCESTER — Where do you go when the music stops playing? And if you’ve had nothing but a tedious dead-end job all your life and even that’s snatched away, where are you?
You end up like the characters in Israel Horovitz’s Gloucester-based drama “North Shore Fish,” which chronicles the final hours of a fish processing plant, now being presented through Aug. 4 by the Gloucester Stage Company. The play — one of many Horovitz works presented through the years since Horovitz founded the GSC and became its artistic director 34 years ago — is not the author’s best work, although it has retained its relevancy and power since it was first presented at GSC in 1986.
As the face of Gloucester and Cape Ann have changed through the years, those same years have seen tumultuous changes in the fishing industry, as catch limits, off-shore trawlers and changing market demands have taken their toll on the fish processing plants that dotted the coast.
As an actor, director Robert Walsh has been well-known for his intense performances , and here he has willed that same intensity from his ensemble, a group of men and women trapped in desperate straits.
Beneath the back-and-forth banter and the horseplay, there is an underlying tension: there are rumors the plant could go under, and that permeates everything that’s said and done. Once a place where the preparing fresh fish was the main work, the plant is now reduced to repacking frozen fish imported from Japan.
An aside from the author: The toughest 10 weeks of work I ever had was as a 17-year-old boy, the only male in an assembly line of women working in a sneaker packing factory in Brockton. Many of the women were single and their family’s sole bread-winner, and they delighted in frank discussions about their families and their love lives, enough to make a 17-year-old Irish Catholic boy blush, which in turn made the women howl with laughter.
Thus, it is easy to identify with the excellent performance by Thomas Phillip O’Neill as Alfred “Porker” Martino , the plant laborer whose seeming specialty is “swinging and missing” when it comes to hooking up with every woman in the area.
O’Neill’s “Porker” is sweetly vulnerable and an easy target for the women’s barbs and a seemingly endless torrent of abuse from Sally, the plant boss, but only to a point…
Lowell Byers sizzles as Sally, the plant manager. Sally is a bad boss and a bad person, making a play for anything in a skirt, bitter and resentful that he was forced to marry at 17.
Aimee Doherty is alternately tough, then tender as Florence, whose mother spent 35 years at the plant and then was suddenly let go; she knows in her heart she has made a mistake by getting involved with Sally, who is very married.
Nancy E. Carroll is Arlyne, the lifer on the assembly line who’s determined to keep an air of civilization around the factory as people are losing their heads.
“We’re fish people,” she reminds her co-workers. “We’re doing what we were born to do.”
There’s also fine support from Marianna Armistead as Josie, the overweight housewife distraught at being alone. “If I weren’t so fat, he’d come home,” she howls in pain about her absent husband.
Theresw Plaehn is heartfelt as Catherine, the inspector who holds the plant’s fate in her hands, but feels a deep affection and sympathy for the workers whose jobs seem to be going out with the tide.
Walsh lays it on a little too thick with the accents, especially with the majority of the audience being local. We don’t all talk like the late Ted Kennedy.
Where Walsh has hit a real home run is in staging the assembly line scenes and coordinating the women into a smooth-running fish-packing machine.
In the second act Horovitz seems ready at several times to put his characters out of their misery, only to have things get bleaker and bleaker by the minute, with revelations, accusations flying back and forth, fights, until a sudden birth changes the mood before the denouement. Florence muses near the end “I have nothing left to teach my kids.”
Jena McFarland Lord’s set starkly conveys the end-of-the-line sadness of a plant that has seen better days and will see few more.
More than a quarter-century after its debut, “North Shore Fish” packs a solid punch, and Walsh has coaxed strong performances all around from his ensemble.
The Gloucester Stage Company production of Israel Horovitz‘s “North Shore Fish.” Directed by Robert Walsh. At the Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester through Aug. 4.