It’s comedy and drama on the high seas as Mister Roberts sets sail at the High Street Arts Center through May 6. The play, written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan and based on Heggen’s novel, takes place aboard the United States Navy cargo ship Reluctant, stationed in the “backwaters” of the Pacific during the final days of World War II.
Mister Roberts made its Broadway debut in 1948 with Henry Fonda in the title role, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Actor. Fonda reprised the role in the 1955 film version, which famously co-starred James Cagney as the Lilliputian tyrant Capt. Morton, William Powell as Doc and Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning role as Ensign Frank Pulver. Those are impossibly big shoes to fill but the High Street Arts Center production, directed by John Tedrick, earns marks for nostalgia.
Mr. Roberts (R. Shane Bingham), the ship’s executive officer and cargo chief, is the only thing standing between the crew and the petty and vindictive Captain Morton (Dale Alpert). Morton shows more respect to his prized potted plant than he does to his men. He goes out of his way to punish them by trying to push Roberts to the breaking point. Roberts takes the heat with a cool Midwestern levelheadedness, but in his heart he rebels and yearns to be where the action is.
Roberts writes letter after letter requesting a transfer, citing “disharmony” aboard the Reluctant. The letters are a thorn in the captain’s side and they stoke his ire to volcanic proportions. Capt. Morton thinks he has finally bested Roberts when he threatens to cancel the crew’s long-overdue liberty unless Roberts stops his letter writing campaign and stays put. Roberts’ selflessness is as true an act of heroism as there ever was, and it inspires a reciprocal act from the crew that finally sets Roberts free.
Roberts’ closest allies are Doc, played with a warm gravitas by Phil Nemy, and Ensign Frank Pulver (Patrick T. Rogers). The riotous crew members are played by John Eslick, Bill Walthall, Dakota Heer, Logan Chase, Kyle Buchanan-Prescott, James Tobin, Eric Whelan, Eric McGowan, Solomon Ha and John Rom. Olivia Heulitt is Lt. Ann Girard and Sabastien Montgomerie is the shore patrolman.
The world of Mister Roberts comes alive thanks to clever set design by Scott Armstrong and light design by Patrick Duffy. Costumer Sara Glauser outfits the cast in authentic uniforms as well as funny get-ups. Dona and Randy Pugh provide props that are on the mark.
It is a different world today than it was when Mister Roberts first took the stage but the play’s most important themes continue to resonate. Tedrick, himself a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer, writes in the Director’s Note: “The bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood . . . continue to this day.”
In the end, Mister Roberts is a bittersweet contemplation on courage, sacrifice and brotherhood. Just beneath the surface it also rings with the importance of standing up to a bully and staying the course of one’s dreams even as it echoes with the realities of war.
Mister Roberts through May 6 at High Street Arts Center, 45 E. High Street, Moorpark. For schedule, tickets and more information call 529-8700 or visit www.highstreetartscenter.com.