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In ‘Sea Sick,’ an expert on oceans sees a world of trouble

Alanna Mitchell in "Sea Sick."Alejandro Santiago

In her one-woman show, “Sea Sick,” the science journalist Alanna Mitchell explains the devastating effects of climate change on our oceans. On Thursday at the Paramount Center, she opened with a couple of admissions: She’s not a scientist, and she’s not an actor, either.

“The truth is, I’m scared,” she said.

She’s been staging this theatrical version of her 2010 bestseller, “Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis,” since 2014. With any luck, she’s conquered her performing fears by now. But if an audience member is not feeling abject terror by the end of Mitchell’s hour-plus presentation, that person is feeling nothing at all.


Allow me to clarify. “Sea Sick” is an engaging night of theater. Mitchell is a gentle, often amusing storyteller, and she breaks down the concept of ocean acidification so that even the most scientifically challenged (raises hand) can understand.

It’s an environmental protest in drama form. Early arrivals listen to eco-friendly songs from her countryman Neil Young. During the show, Mitchell professes her love for Bob Dylan, making deft use of the old standby “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (“Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam/ And admit that the waters around you have grown”).

Armed with nothing more than a piece of chalk and an old-fashioned blackboard, Mitchell recounts her adventures crossing the globe to learn from some of the world’s most highly regarded marine biologists and environmentalists, among them Sylvia Earle (“Her Deepness”), Carol Turley (the “Acid Queen”), and Tim Flannery, who helped “democratize” the idea of climate change with his 2005 book, “The Weather Makers.”

Mitchell, who grew up on the Canadian prairie, says she devised her own method of sharing her findings with equal influence from her parents. Her father was a biologist, a leading expert on the pronghorn antelope. Her mother was a painter. From them, she learned that “curiosity was there to be slaked,” and that research and data about the world around us are best digested through art.


In the Mitchell household, she says, Charles Darwin was a hero. (The author’s first book was about his global adventures.) “He was a reluctant prophet,” she says.

But it was another nature writer, Rachel Carson, who came to mind most often during Mitchell’s performance. Just as Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) helped the layperson comprehend the consequences of human impact on the environment, “Sea Sick” elucidates how our dependence on fossil fuels has lowered the pH levels in our oceans at an alarming rate. The numbers — and there are plenty of numbers — aren’t pretty.

Thankfully, at least in terms of the cost of admission, there are also plenty of lighter moments. Mitchell’s description of the time she accompanied a team of researchers to witness the precise moment of coral spawning drew laughs: Corals have “one orifice and no brain,” she noted.

And she brought the show to a close with a comic riff on her voyage 3,000 feet below sea level, with another team of researchers, in a submersible. By the time the scientists casually finished explaining the dangers of the trip, she joked, her despair over the fate of the planet had vanished.

But she lived to tell the tale. And she wants future generations to do the same. Don’t waste time feeling guilty for using a plastic straw, she says. That’s a microscopic drop in the bucket. The work to be done is bottomless.



Written by Alanna Mitchell. Directed by Franco Boni, with Ravi Jain. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Emerson Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box, 559 Washington St. Through May 22. $60. 617-824-8400, artsemerson.org

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.