Like Connie, the weather-worn Cape May woman who dredges for oysters on the aging boat she lives on, the new play “The Shuck” is home grown. Shawn Fisher, a Cape May native who was a professional fisherman before he became a theater artist, wrote it and designed the large fishing boat that is its set. And Cape May Stage, where Fisher has created the settings for many productions, is into a run that marks the play’s world premiere.
I’d call “The Shuck” a fish tale, but oysters are bivalves and Connie would probably be the first to smack me down in her no-nonsense Tugboat Annie way for my loose idea of accuracy. It’s surely a seaside tale. Connie plies the waters outside Cape May, with a special affinity for little Shell Pile, the community about a half hour away that was once a New Jersey oystering capital until a pathogen wreaked irreversible havoc on the creatures in the ’50s. “The Shuck” takes place in 1974, when the town was on the skids.
Connie is played by Kim Zimmer, a stage actress (she also played Reva Shayne on TV’s “Guiding Light”) whose character comes off as a heady mixture of Mother Earth, an industrial-strength curmudgeon and a woman who’s lived an actual soap-opera life but on the water. She’s about ready to let her old boat, Baby Gail, sink into a quiet demise. She’s volatile, always quick to bray at her casual bedmate Frank, an old salt played with quiet wisdom by another veteran actor, Bill Tatum.
Into their daily routine of harsh talk and back-talk comes the 19-year-old for whom the Baby Gail is named, or maybe it’s the other way around. Gail, played with appropriate anger and curiosity by Kyra Adams — a Cape May native with a recent theater degree from NYU — hasn’t seen her mom in seven years, since Connie essentially kicked her out. She has a brother, Teddy, who has recently died in an accident at sea, to the comfort of just about anyone who knew him.
It’s a set up ripe for drama, which Fisher’s script delivers in an uneven way. I wanted to believe these characters are real people — Roy B. Steinberg, Cape May Stage’s leader, certainly does in his direction that offers a serious, focused reading of the play. He and the actors can go only so far, though, because Connie and Frank are nothing more than the flat types Fisher creates for them. They lack nuance.
Connie’s tongue will always be sharp, and she’ll be unable to accept generosity from Frank or anyone. Frank will always forgive her without taking offense. And they won’t reveal what they’re really thinking. When Connie begins to do so at one point — she second guesses herself for a nano-second when her daughter refuses to come into the cabin and faces a rainy night on the boat’s deck — it’s a rare glimpse into a real person.
The show’s design is impressive: Fisher’s stage-filling boat never rocks, but it seems to because of the constant creaking in Mary Kate Smyser’s sound design, complete with the occasional squawks of distant seagulls. Sera Bourgeau’s costumes nicely outfit the two commercial seafarers, and Heather Crocker lights various hours of the day and night just right. All this, plus the plot, give the “The Shuck” a soul filled with sea air. What its characters need is more heart to go with it.
“The Shuck” runs through Nov. 9 at Cape May Stage’s Robert Shackleton Playhouse, 405 Lafayette St., Cape May, N.J. 609-770-8311 or capemaystage.org.