For years Thalian Association wanted to host a show on the fantail of the USS Battleship North Carolina. Since they’ve had to give up donated space for their summer season at Red Barn Studio Theatre (which sold earlier in the year), it seemed a perfect time to look into alternative venues that would suit a play like 1948’s “Mister Roberts.” The Battleship seemed a perfect fit, as the show is based on a collection of short stories by Thomas Heggen (Heggen and Joshua Logan adapted the story to the stage) that follows a crew of Navymen in the South Pacific during World War II. They’re overseeing a cargo ship, USS Virgo (AKA-20), with the main character, Lieutenant Roberts, looking for a transfer si he can be directly involved in the action of war. Yet, Mister Roberts’ loyalty to his crew and shared dislike for their captain keeps him aboard the ship, wherein daily life waxes and wanes between boredom and a little magic. Directed by Chandler Davis, the show stars Woody Stefl in the lead role. We interviewed them both for their debut of the play on July 4.
encore (e): Chandler, tell us about the process for securing the Battleship, and will Thalian be doing more shows in alternative spaces?
Chandler Davis (CD): The Battleship has been a part of the planning from the beginning, so they were obviously eager to let us use the ship. Thalian is currently looking for alternate venues to do plays in, and I love the idea of doing something in a space that isn’t usually used for performances.
e: What do you like most about being on the Battleship for this show?
CD: The staff have been so helpful and extremely easy to work with. They’re also very useful when it comes to checking the historical accuracy of details.
e: Have you seen the production? Anything you find still timeless, though written originally in the ‘40s?
CD: I have seen the original film with Henry Fonda and the 1980’s TV movie with Kevin Bacon. The play ultimately [revolves around the] idea you can have a major impact on people’s lives through small acts of service in your daily life versus going off and “saving the world,” which I think is an incredibly important message today. In this uncertain political and social climate, it’s easy to feel helpless or like you don’t know how to impact change. It’s important to remember little things we do for our fellow humans make a big difference.
I think the play is also about loyalty and the decision to make sacrifices for your friends and family—even if they might never know how much you did for them.
e: Woody, how would you say this production speaks to war and the realities of it, if at all? What will audiences learn from it?
Woody Stefl (WS): Mister Roberts’ constant desire to seek further ambitions in the war effort are a reminder there are always those willing to pay the ultimate price for their country. His job as a cargo officer is not fulfilling to him, and he has this overwhelming urge to participate and not merely be a spectator. The show really doesn’t elaborate too much on the realities of war, and without giving away any spoilers, we really don’t see those realities till the end of the show.
e: Tell me about your character, Mister Roberts, and some of his flaws and strengths—how they work together to make him relatable to the audience.
WS: He is a likable fellow, who is very good at his job but longs for and obsesses over having a bigger contribution to the war effort. He is very well-liked and admired by his crew, but almost to a fault. His love for his shipmates drives him to abandon his efforts for getting transferred to a fighting ship. He knows full well the rules and regulations of the Navy but also knows when and how to skirt them for his shipmates’ gain. Ultimately, his compromise will cause some distrust among his men, but that trust is gained again once they understand his motives. The crew then risk it all to fulfill Mister Roberts’ goal of getting to the war.
e: What’s your main plight in this show as an actor thus far?
WS: For me, and with many shows I’ve done, it is getting “off book,” especially this show, as I am in nearly every scene. Also, transitioning from an indoor rehearsal space to actually being on the deck of the ship, which hasn’t occurred yet.
e: What has been the hardest and best parts in directing it, Chandler?
CD: Staging the show in the Community Arts Center and pretending it’s the ship—hands down. I think there will be a fair amount of restaging during tech week. We have 56 feet of playing space on the fantail, which is twice the size of Thalian Hall where we’re used to performing. The actors have to enter from the back of the audience a lot, which is around the length of 60 feet, so they’ve got to be ready way in advance, since they can’t just pop onstage like they could in a traditional theater space.
The guys have been great, though. They’re very easy going, and I can tell they’ll roll with the punches just fine. I’m working with several new actors, too, which is always nice. I’m learning a lot about directing outdoor theatre. I performed in outdoor venues for years, but this is my first time directing in this kind of a setting. I’ve had to be extra alert for this one.
It’s also great watching the cast navigate the up and down emotional tides of this show. There are some very silly moments and serious ones, and they do a great job finding the right flow.
e: What are you learning from Mister Roberts that you hadn’t learned before as an actor, Woody?
WS: This is one of the bigger roles I’ve played and a bigger cast than I’m used to, so I think patience is the most valuable thing I’m learning right now. With patience I am honing my listening skills, which is very important to reacting to the other characters and actions.
e: Do you have a fave scene that speaks to the heart of the show?
WS: Act I, scene II is a great one that frames the theme of the play. It reveals Lt. Roberts’ ambitions and frustrations with getting transferred, and shows his fondness for his crew and his desire to see that his men get liberty for the hard work they do. Wrapped within is a very comedic bit where Roberts’ and Doc’s attempt to make scotch to help Ensign Pulver achieve his goal of getting an army nurse on board.
e: Any fave lines you feel wrap up the impact of the human experience?
WS: Toward the end of the play, after Roberts has finally received his orders for transfer, the Doc confides in him that his crew had hatched an illegal plan to get his orders:
“I love those bastards, Doc. I think they’re the greatest guys on earth. All of a sudden, I feel that there’s something wrong—something terribly wrong about leaving them.”