WELLFLEET – There’s something about the riddle of history that lends itself to epigrammatic expression, from Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’’) to Joyce (“History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’’) to Faulkner (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past’’).
One-liners, weighty and not, add texture to Harbor Stage Company’s “The Billingsgate Project,’’ a new play by Brenda Withers that amounts to a quirky meditation on the mysteries of history, the distortions of collective memory, and the problematic nature of theater.
“We spend the present — don’t we? — thinking and talking about the past,’’ muses John, one of four amateur historians who are doing just that as they research an unusual episode — the disappearance of Billingsgate Island — and put together a re-creation of the event, designed to be presented as an evening’s entertainment.
The island, which used to sit at the mouth of Wellfleet Harbor, was home to numerous fishing and farming families. But after decades of erosion, the last of the island sank into the sea more than 70 years ago. Well before that, the families had left the island, transporting their houses on rafts to the mainland.
Withers has taken chronological liberties with regard to the island’s last days, but “The Billingsgate Project’’ is rooted in a strong sense of place; indeed, it was created in tandem with the 250th anniversary of the founding of Wellfleet.
A nautical rope is stretched across the stage, which is painted an oceanic shade of aqua (the set design is by Withers and Victor Johnson). As “The Billingsgate Project’’ begins, we hear the sound of the waves and the wind as a lighthouse keeper, played by Robert Kropf, stands vigil.
Then the play shifts to the present, and, in a Pirandellian touch that establishes a link between history and theater, Jean, played by Stacy Fischer, confides to the audience that “I’ve said this before. These words, in this order. Mostly. I’ve stood in this spot, I’ve moved this way . . . this has been staged, prepared, rehearsed . . . again and again and again, until it was ready to be presented. And represented. To you.’’
An actress-playwright who is one of the six founding members of Harbor Stage Company, Withers has a hypnotic way with words and an absurdist sensibility, as she demonstrated with the Damon-Affleck spoof “Matt & Ben’’ (co-written with Mindy Kaling) and “The Ding Dongs (or What is the Penalty in Portugal?).”
Her characters tend to go off on unexpected tangents, and dread is often lapping around the edges. Without warning, whimsical conversations can suddenly take a deep dive to a dark place.
Withers sometimes lets “The Billingsgate Project’’ tip over into obscurantism, but I’m willing to accept some head-scratching moments if it means a chance to see this original mind at work and to hear this arrestingly idiosyncratic voice. (Withers describes “The Billingsgate Project’’ as an ensemble effort; while she wrote the text and conceived the staging, the other three actors helped to shape its order and tone, according to the playwright.)
The play shifts back and forth in time from the present day to the earliest years of the 20th century, when Kropf’s lighthouse keeper watches and ruminates as his neighbors prepare to depart Billingsgate Island for the mainland. “My friends fear they are here too long; I fear their fear, the impending exodus,’’ he says. He later adds: “I hold true to my calling even as they abandon theirs.’’
A similarly all-consuming notion of duty seems to propel John, the tightly wound leader of the history project, also portrayed by Kropf. Withers, her hair in a ponytail and her face framed by eyeglasses, plays Rebecca, who remains starchy and self-possessed right up to the point that she launches into a macabre tale about a witch. Fischer’s cheerily garrulous Jean is light years away temperamentally from Fischer’s brooding Masha in Harbor Stage’s recent production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.’’ Jonathan Fielding portrays the contemplative Haley.
As they try to turn the tale of Billingsgate Island into an evening of entertainment, there are power struggles and debates over authenticity. They wrangle over what to include and what to leave out, how faithful they need to be to the text of the lighthouse keeper’s journal, and how to cope with an ominously unstoppable leak whose rushing water prompts anxious thoughts about parallels with the story they’re telling.
As time goes by, an awareness steadily dawns on them, and us, that everything they’re saying and doing can be entered into that tricky category called history.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.