Thalian Association, North Carolina’s Official Community Theatre, has teamed up with the USS North Carolina Battleship to present Thomas Heggen and Josh Logan’s “Mister Roberts” on the fantail. A generation of writers who served in WWII and began writing during the war emerged and left a lasting impact on American arts and literature. Gore Vidal, James Michener and Herman Wouk are just a few names that leap to mind. In addition, Thomas Heggen joins the list with his magnum opus, “Mister Roberts.”
Based on his experiences on a cargo ship in the South Pacific during war, the 1946 novel resonated with people across the country, and was adapted to the stage with Josh Logan in 1948. Heggen did not live to see the 1955 film starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, and William Powell, which is probably the version most people are familiar with today.
Mister Roberts (Woody Stefl) left medical school to join the Navy in World War II. He wanted to fight evil and make the world a better, safer place. Thus far, he has spent the war on a cargo ship, delivering supplies but he has not seen action once. He is a damn good cargo officer because he’s a good leader. And he’s not a leader in name only but in deed and word. The crew know it; they know in their hearts and bones the real leader of the ship is not Captain Morton (Stuart Pike) but Mister Roberts. The problem is: Captain knows it, too, and jealousy is eating him alive. The crew—played by Aaron Johnson, Jonathan Walin, Mark Deese, Jordan Hathaway, Joseph Angel, Charles Calhoun, and Mike Thompson—have not had shore leave in recent memory. As the Doc (Joseph Renton) notes, the situation is getting desperate, so Roberts hits on a plan, involving bribery with a bottle of liquor and the good will of an officer superior to Captain Morton. As the saying goes, “To make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” In this case, two eggs will bear the brunt of the decision: Ensign Pulver (Jeff Hidek) and a nurse who he was planning to seduce with said bottle of liquor.
In addition, the captain is incredibly upset Roberts has gone around him to negotiate the port transfer with the promise of shore leave. In the tradition of bullies-the-world-over, Captain Morton extracts an extreme promise from Roberts in exchange for giving the crew permission to leave the ship—and the caveat he can’t tell them about it. It has been too long since the men had any freedom, and to put it simply, they trash the island.
Every horror story of sailors behaving badly in port is surpassed with glee from this crew. Actually, watching them trickle back to the ship from their exploits is infectious; it looks like they had so much fun. They even befriended a goat! Really, the actors are adorable in their elation. Even more wonderful, though, is watching Stefl’s smile as he drinks in their delight. The crew really capture camaraderie beautifully. They bring to life the transition from irritated cabin fever and frustration to a cohesive crew prepared to do whatever they need for each other. As a collective, their performances are really great.
Lt. Ann Girard (Sydney Smith Martin), the lust interest of Ensign Pulver, is a forceful response to the hungry certainty of the men aboard the cargo vessel. Martin gives no quarter, and dishes out far more than the guys are expecting. Poor Pulver is completely unprepared for such a turn of events. Hidek milks some his best comedic moments with her. But it is really Stefl’s journey as Roberts, fighting a private war, that is the crux of the show. What he has to learn about himself is harder for him to swallow than any stone cast by Captain. Stefl convinces us he is in the moment with each step, and from a performance standpoint, it is beautiful to watch. Henry Fonda’s shoes can be mighty big to fill, but Stefl makes the role his own.
North Carolina has a long and distinguished history of outdoor drama. Our state is home to more than any other in the nation. Though this does not fit the bill, per se, of an historical drama that memorializes events of a specific place, it is very much within the vein of the work to stage it on the USS North Carolina. The technical team probably suffered a nightmare of problem-solving to pull the staging together, but it is quite lovely and a tremendous use of the venue. Lance Howell’s scenic design and lighting overcome all challenges. Debbie Scheu’s costumes make the characters and the USS North Carolina feel like they have all come alive. Truly, the piece and venue are a wonderful union.