GLOUCESTER – To Arlyne, the oldest of the mostly female blue-collar workers in Israel Horovitz’s “North Shore Fish,’’ the matter is simple. “We are fish people,’’ she says placidly, packing box after box after box, just as she has done for more than three decades. “We are doing what we were born to do.’’
As Arlyne, played by the great Nancy E. Carroll, speaks those words, her boss can be seen, but not heard, in his glassed-in office, furiously arguing with a government inspector. Crisis is swirling around the frozen-fish processing plant that Arlyne and her co-workers rely on. Their livelihoods are slipping away from them.
That’s an experience, of course, that millions of Americans have had in the past few years. In the preface to a 1989 edition of “North Shore Fish,’’ which had premiered three years earlier, Horovitz asked: “What happens to people’s dignity when their work is no longer useful or available?’’
It’s a question many of our policymakers seem strangely unconcerned about, even as the crisis of long-term unemployment festers, but it’s squarely confronted by the current Gloucester Stage Company production of “North Shore Fish,’’ directed by Robert Walsh.
Though some cast members overdo the accents and Horovitz overstuffs the play with showdowns, revelations, and birth-death parallels, “North Shore Fish’’ has the ring of authenticity. Jenna McFarland Lord has devised a grittily realistic set that, with its ancient assembly line and battered gray lockers, suggests the workplace equivalent of a ghost town.
Walsh, who gave a memorable performance in 2009 at Gloucester Stage in Horovitz’s “Sins of the Mother’’ and directed his “Fighting Over Beverley’’ in 2011, understands the tone, pace, and full-throttle acting style this playwright’s work requires. The director infuses “North Shore Fish’’ with a raw energy that delivers a visceral jolt.
For the audience, part of the jolt may come from the milieu, and from the simple sight of workers doing work. The collapse of the manufacturing sector is one of the biggest stories of our time, yet it receives relatively scant attention from contemporary writers. Executing their repetitive tasks in hairnets and rubber smocks (the note-perfect costumes are by Gail Astrid Buckley), these are the kind of manual laborers not often represented onstage.
It’s clear these wrappers at a Gloucester company called North Shore Fish were clinging to the margins even before business started to falter, co-workers started getting laid off, and the plant’s owner started thinking about selling. As events unfold and tensions escalate to the point of violence, you may find yourself thinking that this is what genuine economic desperation looks like.
But you may also find yourself laughing a good deal, because the play is raucously funny. Horovitz hasn’t created one-dimensional victims, but full-blooded human beings who bicker and joke with equal ferocity. They may be going down, but they’re going down fighting.
Aimee Doherty, in a deftly calibrated performance, portrays Florence, a weary but scrappy worker who seems to be trying to figure out her next move as she contemplates the dead end she’s in. It’s obvious to us — and eventually to her — that she made a mistake getting romantically involved with the married plant manager, Salvatore, nicknamed Sally. Played by Lowell Byers with compellingly angry intensity, Sally is a bully, a serial philanderer, a thoroughly reprehensible figure all around. Horovitz peels back the character’s layers enough, however, to give us a glimpse of the toppling dominoes that have left Sally feeling as trapped as the workers he lords it over.
With complete naturalness, Carroll inhabits the role of Ar-lyne, the lifer. She captures the character’s comic aspects — her coworkers recite the lines of Arlyne’s oft-told stories and oft-repeated nostrums before she does — and the fast-fading tradition she represents. Arlyne is the one person who can make the cursing, swaggering Sally behave; she simply folds her arms and frowns at him.
As a worker nicknamed Porker, underestimated and derided by the others because of his goofy demeanor, Thomas Phillip O’Neill is just terrific. (The actor is the grandson of the legendary late House Speaker Tip O’Neill and son of former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas P. O’Neill III.) Though he’s often relegated to the sidelines, Porker emerges as the moral center of the play.
Marianna Armitstead brings both humor and poignancy to the character of Josie, a compulsive overeater whose brassy ways conceal a deep-seated grief at the course her life has taken. Therese Plaehn, whose recent roles have included Emily in the David Cromer-directed “Our Town’’ at Huntington Theatre Company, subtly captures the humanity of Catherine, the outwardly imperious inspector. As Catherine bonds with the workers in one scene, there’s an empathy in her eyes, and also a certain anxiety. In the world both captured and augured by “North Shore Fish,’’ no one’s job is safe.