Gritty fishermen grapple with their fathers and the sea

Poets and playwrights have glorified the exploits of seafaring men since Homer's Odyssey. The Wilma Theater presents a more personal, though no less inspiring, look at this tradition in its riveting North American premiere of Richard Bean's Under the Whaleback.

Bean's episodic play portrays the lives of North Sea fishermen across three generations, showing a patrilineage of hardscrabble boys who live long enough to sire sons before expiring in icy underwater tombs.

We meet local fishing icon Cassidy (Pearce Bunting) in 1965; bloodied and drunk before what he hopes is his last journey; he portends a certain fate with an uncertain timeline. Seven years later, Darrel (Brian Radcliffe) huddles in another hull off the stormy coast of Iceland, trying to avoid his father's fate through the use of a survival suit. Like the lore of Jason's Golden Fleece, this gear acts as both protection and talisman, and later becomes a millstone that (in the final act, set 30 years later) drags down a future in which he no longer fishes, and no longer finds purpose.

Blanka Zizka's probing direction and the efforts of a sensational cast (with a standout performance by Keith Conallen) humanize these modern mariners. They stomp on the stage, all bluff and bluster, the hardened shell of boys lured to tame the tempest before finding solace in friendship and family.

Zizka's poignant pacing trawls through themes of fathers and sons, generational conflict, and the existential isolation and despair of men figuratively and literally trapped in a hull for 40 weeks a year. Humor bristles through in rough jokes, but never enough to let us forget that generations of these sailors died so the English could eat fish and chips.

Matt Saunder's set of a ship's hull sits on hydraulic stilts; it heaves and lists, tossing these sailors about as creaking timbers echo through Daniel Perelstein's sound design.

Far fewer of these fragile trawlers take to the seas for fishing, and the courageous men who manned them in their heyday exist today in reality shows or retirement. Their legend lives at the Wilma.