‘North Shore Fish’ Explores Humanity in a Failing Fish-Processing Plant

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly special about the people in North Shore Fish, Israel Horovitz’s drama depicting the last days of a fish processing plant that’s currently being produced by Enfield’s Shaker Bridge Theatre.

The employees at North Shore Fish clock in and pass their time on the assembly line with salty banter, talk of babies and wayward husbands, and recollections of the plant’s better days. Their humor is bawdy. They refer to people of Japanese ethnicity with one syllable. Their mobility is limited; the character of Maureen (Jeannie Hines) plans to go on a grand vacation, but it’s eventually revealed that her destination is Connecticut.

These are unsophisticated people, yet each is familiar, and that’s where much of the appeal of North Shore Fish lies. Unless you’re in the top 1 percent, you probably know people like this, whose chief concern is earning enough to pay rent and stay on time with car payments. The cast in Shaker Bridge’s North Shore Fish does an admirable job of making these characters and their struggles endearing, and there’s not a weak link among them.

North Shore Fish is set in Gloucester, Mass., a working-class seaside town that was in the headlines a few years ago when a group of teenage girls were thought to have formed a “pact” to get pregnant. In the mid-1980s, when the play is set, the fishing industry that has sustained the town for generations has hit the skids. The most immediate drama comes with the arrival of Catherine, the new government safety inspector (Kay Morton), whose professional resolve butts up against the seedy tactics of Sal (Grant Neale), the ne’er-do-well plant manager. In the past, bedding the inspector had worked to his advantage. Kay is wise not only to the plant’s shady production practices, but to Sal’s sleaziness, and his first pass at her proves to be his only one.

At this point in his life, Sal’s shoulders sag under the weight of every poor decision he’s made (and he’s made his share). His woman problems span the size of Gloucester, and the employees at North Shore Fish get regular exposure to Sal’s troubles through Flo (LeeAnn Hutchison), with whom he’s alternately fighting or necking like the world is about to end. Through Neale’s performance, we see a man who has managed to manipulate the people around him, but with the plant’s all-but-certain closure, is being shut out by forces beyond his control. “It ain’t my fault. I did my job,” he says defiantly. In that moment, Neale delivers us Sal in his essence: someone who has succeeded at nothing but failure his entire life.

As Porker, the play’s other male, Bill Sawyer deftly balances his character’s duties as comic relief, butt of jokes and shoulder to cry on. But it’s the largely female workforce at North Shore Fish that carries the show. No one would confuse these women for being worldly, but they’re not dumb, either. They see the writing on the wall. This factory is limping along toward a certain death. Several production lines have already been shut down. The women who remain have steeled themselves for the plant’s closure, but have few ideas as to what directions their lives will take when they are no longer “fish people.”

By Shaker Bridge standards, this is a large cast (the theater’s last production, Underneath the Lintel, was a one-man show). Director Bill Coons has done great work with smaller casts, and here, he gives us a sense of what he can do with an ensemble. Each actress brings a lot of heart to her performance, and the ensemble as a whole plays well off one another. Of particular note are Laine Gillespie as Josie and Hutchison as Flo. Like all of the female characters, Josie and Flo are what some might call “tough broads.” In playing a put-upon wife who’s struggling not only with the loss of her job, but of her youth, Gillespie hits all the right notes, showing the real person struggling behind Josie’s tough North Shore exterior. Hutchison’s Flo is the saucy one of the group, stretching the limits of propriety with her language. She’s also in a dicey situation with the married Sal, and haunted by memories of the way his last affair ended. Flo is a woman of many struggles, and Hutchison expertly unveils her character’s conflicts, internal and external.

There’s a lot to love about North Shore Fish. Sure, there are familiar plot devices (the birth of a baby in the midst of bad news, signalling a new beginning), and times when the story gets a little over the top. But these moments are few, and they’re usually rescued by a moment of levity. It’s a night of theater that’s charming, endearing, and engrossing.

North Shore Fish opened last Friday evening, after another drama, that of finding the surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect, played out all day on the world stage. I can’t speak for the other theatergoers Friday, but North Shore Fish allowed me to leave behind the events of the day. A great piece of theater should allow us to replace whatever troubles occupy our minds for a spell, and embrace someone else’s struggles. In this regard, and others, North Shore Fish succeeds.

North Shore Fish runs weekends through May 5 at Shaker Bridge Theatre.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com.

or 603-727-3242.