One man’s fateful decision during the frightening chaos of one of the world’s greatest tragedies is only a small part of the immense appeal of Luke Yankee’s compelling 2014 drama “The Last Lifeboat,” currently receiving an outstanding regional premiere as the 72nd season opener of the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Yes, Joseph Bruce Ismay, British owner of the White Star Line, notoriously saved himself when the Titanic sank during her maiden voyage in April 1912. But the fundamental events decades before and after, providing the brisk pulse and inherent attraction of the play, offers fascinating insights into a man pigeonholed as a coward throughout history. As depicted by Yankee, balancing years of substantive research with the freedom of artistic liberties, the guilt-ridden Ismay is not portrayed as an entitled villain but simply a victim of circumstance. He was a man who never felt loved or admired by his stern father who particularly scolded him about crying in public. He also had difficulties of discernment when negotiating with rich investors (such as J.P. Morgan) who wanted the Titanic to be constructed in favor of the elite. Survivor’s guilt, legal challenges and relationship challenges took its toll on him as well with his health notably declining in the 1930s due to complications from diabetes. He died of a stroke in 1937 at the age of 74.
In his impressive Guild directorial debut, Jeff Sams brings strikingly cinematic and choreographic fluidity to Yankee’s meticulous handiwork, which covers nearly 60 years and over 50 scenes. Sams specifically injects breathtaking poignancy into the play’s gripping centerpiece, the Act 1 finale centered on Ismay entering the lifeboat. The terrifically versatile cast dramatically unifies in slow motion to convey the sinking as “Nearer, My God, to Thee” fittingly propels emotions. In addition to creating an expert scenic design consisting of trunks, tables, crates, antiques, efficient props, and newspaper renderings, Sams wisely keeps the cast, beautifully costumed in period attire by Carol Finley, on stage at all times. His decision allows the play to maintain an impactful, observational immediacy, drawing the audience further into the storytelling accented with first-rate assistance from lighting designer John Falkenbach and sound designer K.L. Storer. Redundant blackouts chip away at momentum but are not a major hindrance.
Matt Lindsay (Ismay), Heather Atkinson (Mrs. Ryerson and others), Mike Beerbower (William Randolph Hearst and others), Cassandra Engber (Vivian Hilliard and others), Zach Katris (Phillip Franklin and others), Heather Martin (Florence Ismay and others), Kerry Simpson (Margaret Ismay and others), and J. Gary Thompson (Thomas Ismay and others) firmly fashion wonderfully vivid characterizations. Lindsay has the lion’s share of material and his amiable persona sells Ismay’s good intentions (Yankee is pro-Ismay all the way which will infuriate doubters), but the entire cast has ample opportunity to shine. For instance, as first class passenger Mrs. Ryerson, Atkinson sharply trades the character’s inquisitive playfulness in Act 1 for hardened contempt in Act 2 as she attempts to make sense of losing her husband who valiantly went down with the ship. The compassionate Engber is an endearing source of care and concern as Ismay’s former sweetheart Vivian, a character birthed from Yankee’s imagination. Beerbower, memorably understated last season in the Guild’s local premiere of “Outside Mullingar,” is superbly sly and malicious as newspaper magnate Hearst, particularly in a disheartening Act 2 scene opposite Martin when Florence tries to seduce Hearst to protect Ismay. Thompson, a reliable chameleon, weaves through numerous identities with aplomb but is especially formidable as Thomas, Ismay’s successful yet insensitive father. By and large, this cast is one of the finest ever assembled by the Guild.
Yankee notably attended the Saturday, Aug. 27 performance and participated in a lively and informative talkback to share his thoughts on the creative process. It was apparent how much he admired Ismay’s legacy and the entirety of the Titanic account. As so, in his appreciation of Ismay, responsible for the “largest floating object in the world,” “The Last Lifeboat” stands as a cautionary tale proving that in the midst of great darkness and despair redemption is never too far away.
“The Last Lifeboat” continues through Sept. 4 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 42 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org.