The opening of Doug Williams’s Ship felt like a celebration for Azuka Theatre Company. In his opening-night curtain speech, director Kevin Glaccum shared that this is Azuka’s 24th world premiere (no easy feat, he reminded us, for a relatively small company), ninth Young Professionals production, and third collaboration with Doug Williams. It is clear why Azuka returns to Williams. His plays are funny, warm, and current. The buzz after Saturday’s opening said he’s one to watch, as well as the young ensemble and design team, all of whom excel to make Ship effective and memorable.
Humor and nuance
Annie Fang stars as Nell, who’s recovering from addiction in Mystic, Connecticut. She has an intense interest in world records and works as a ticket-taker at the Mystic Seaport, but longs to be a tour guide. Her story is a familiar one. She is struggling to deal with the day-to-day tedium of sobriety while working a job where her talents are overlooked. Her sister Caitlin (Alison Ormsby) tries to help her through this transition with equal parts empathy, patience, and suspicion. Her only friend is Jeremiah (Michael A. Stahler), who has recently returned home after giving up on his dream to grow the world’s longest fingernails.
Williams is at his best drawing humor and nuance out of familiar situations and obstacles. While fractured relationships, failed dreams, and addiction are major themes here, they don’t define the play’s terms or limit its characters. We don’t pity Nell; we marvel at her.
Uniformly strong acting aids the script. While Nell can be abrasive and certainly lacks self-awareness, Fang imbues the character with so much heart you happily accept these flaws. Ormsby exudes the warmth and struggle that are part of taking responsibility for family problems. As Jeremiah, Stahler proves a wonderful world-weary foil to Fang’s bouncy exuberance. His journey to accept his past feels the most emotionally wrought and satisfying.
Great things to come
The Young Professionals team also delivers top-notch design. Kevin Hoover’s nautical set looks great under Qi’er Luo’s lights and provides plenty of options for Glaccum’s staging. I was particularly charmed by Tom Carmon’s sound design. His musical choices give both a nostalgic backdrop during scene changes and provide some scenes with their emotional climax.
All this being said, the play and production are not perfect. Scenes sometimes end abruptly, and Williams also has a habit in Ship of skipping over juicy action. Early on in the show, a scene begins after two characters have sex, but we are left wondering as to how that happened. Later, a climactic moment is left offstage, only to be recapped after the fact. But I have no doubts that this overall strong work is a sign of great things to come.
What, When, Where
Ship. By Doug Williams. Directed by Kevin Glaccum. Through March 15, 2020, at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or www.azukatheatre.org.
The Drake Theatre complex is fully accessible. Wheelchair seating, companion seating, and mobility and audiovisual-accessible seating is available for all performances. Seating requests can be made prior to the performance by calling (215) 568-8079 or emailing [email protected] The Drake has gender-neutral restrooms.