The Real Deal

Two Years Before the Mastcould have been so much less. This one-man theatrical adaptation of Richard Henry Dana's account of a sailor's life circa 1834 could have been a mere stage version of such bulldozed realities as Mission Viejo (which is neither a mission nor very old), Laguna Audubon (once a pristine, birded wilderness) or Ladera Ranch (which was but isn't). Or the producers could have morphed Dana's torturous year trading for cattle hides along the California coast into a romantic schoolboy's story of intrepid sailors braving the briny elements in order to chart unknown territory and bring civilization to the savage—a hardy tale symbolizing the indomitable spirit of the Noble American, that pioneering rock upon which the church of western expansion and development was built.

There are other presentiments that this stage version of Two Years Before the Mastmight easily sink, carried to the bottom by a cargo of leaden propaganda. It's set upon a full-size replica of the tallship that Dana sailed upon, a brig called The Pilgrim that rests in the harbor in the city that bears Dana's name, no less. And this one-man show has become an Orange County theatrical institution. It is, in other words, popular.

But this show doesn't go out of its way to glorify much—certainly not the life of a 19th-century sailor or even the enterprising white-skinned men who first laid claim to what would become the 31st state in the union. It's a sincere adaptation of Dana's first-person account of life upon the seas, and it captures the harshness and the monotony of that life, punctuating both with rare moments of transcendent beauty.

Jeffrey Paul Whitman portrays Dana and six other characters, ranging from congenial shipmates to the tyrannical Captain Thompson, whose oppression of his men prompted Dana to push for changes in U.S. maritime law.

As theatrical experiences go, his performance is bare bones—no lighting changes, few sound effects, a couple of cosmetic costume changes. It relies on the strength of Whitman's performance and the physical setting of that performance to transport the audience through time and across the seas.

Whitman is a fine actor, capturing the young Dana's wide-eyed exuberance at being at sea, as well as some of the hairier emotions arising in life upon that sea. He's never better than in the painful aftermath of a fellow seaman's fall into the ocean. As Dana wrote—and as Whitman relates it—death is always solemn, but there's something about a death at sea that magnifies the intense isolation of the small, cloistered community that survives it.

Whitman does a good job of capturing his characters, from their vernacular to their body postures. But you can't shake the feeling that five years into a role he inherited from the original playwright, he's settled into a routine. That's not necessarily a bad thing—routine also means you're plying your craft. But Whitman doesn't incorporate into the performance as much of the ship as he might. That's a loss: this is the most unusual space in Orange County. With The Pilgrim's masts towering 100 yards above the water—complete with supporting yards, sails and webs of rigging—it's easy to imagine you're duplicating Dana's journey from Boston to San Francisco and back by way of Cape Horn.

Two Years Before the Mast is a straightforward narrative. We start with the middle-aged Dana in San Francisco some 24 years after his first journey. He takes us back to his days at Harvard, when, enamored of the sea, he left his studies to see the world.

For the next two years, Dana worked aboard The Pilgrim, surviving storms, the oppression of the ship's captain and the horrible nature of his job. The Pilgrim was in the business of trading for cattle hides. Not only did its sailors transport the hides, but they also cleaned, soaked and cured them onshore. It was time-consuming, arduous and filthy work, Dana noted, the senses assailed by the "stench of rotting meat and rancid fat."

But it also gave Dana a front-row seat at the birth of the economic transformations that continue to define California to this day. During Dana's first visit in 1834, California was still part of Mexico. It was sparsely populated; white men came primarily for the vile hide-and-tallow trade. When he returned in 1859, California was transformed. Gold was god, and the economy boomed. Through timber and the automobile industry, oil and entertainment, and defense contractors and information technology, California's economy continues to reshape itself. Standing now on the deck of The Pilgrim, it's easy to see Dana's decision to document the beginnings of this cycle as eerily prescient.

After the performance, Whitman breaks from character and opens the floor to questions from the audience. My question was something I'd always thought I knew but never really did: Where did Dana Point get its name? I figured Dana was the first Anglo to lay eyes on the point and that some governor or naturalist had honored him with the name.

No, Whitman said. In keeping with much of California's modern history, the name was a marketing device. Seems a developer in the 1920s—the state was lousy with them even then—needed a name for a community he was trying to launch in the area and lit on Dana Point, since Dana had spent time in San Juan Harbor. The stock market crash at decade's end took the developer down, but the name was resurrected some 20 years later.

That's hardly the stuff of romance and legend. But there's something so Orange County about our desperate attempt to root ourselves in history. It's why streets in this town have been given salty names like Windlass, Caspian and Binnacle. It's why our airport is named after a guy who may have had a home here, but whose real legacy is that he got tanked in a few bars by the beach. It's why we have these wonderful place names but so few of the wonderful places in them—no groves of gardens, no valleys of fountains. The very name Orange County has become ironic.

And that's why a play like Two Years Before the Mast—a simple, relatively harmless piece of living history that relates how things truly were once upon a time—is so valuable. There's no pretense, no illusion here, nothing but the facts as one man reported them years ago. It's not romance; it's reality—something in short supply in this corner of the desert.

TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST at the Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point, (949) 496-2274. Fri.-Sat., 6:30 & 8:30 p.m. Through Aug. 19. $20.

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