No matter what some of us think of Ernest Hemingway — his all too imitable blunt-understatement style, his unfashionably macho fascination with death and killing — we have to admit that the power of his language has aged remarkably well in the 48 years since his death. And the vigorous, absorbing production of “The Old Man and the Sea, ” adapted by Eric Ting and Craig Siebels, is smart enough to use it in large doses. The play, which is now having its world-premiere run at Long Wharf Theater, may not deliver the series of one-two punches of Hemingway’s novella, but it has definite emotional resonance of its own.
Still, what could they have been thinking? This story of a worn-out, elderly Cuban fisherman alone in his small boat battling with a particularly hard-to-land fish and talking only to himself or the unseen fish (“Are you ready? Have you been long enough at table?”), with whom he feels a brotherly bond, is an unlikely candidate for the stage. Even the 1958 film version with Spencer Tracy, which at least used real fish and put the star in a gigantic studio tank to create the illusion of being at sea, was a disappointment to many. It’s best remembered now for Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score.
Long Wharf’s is a first-class production with strong performances and dynamic staging, but it solves the problem of depicting the most crucial event (what happens after the man catches a large fish) by just skipping it, which is a great loss. In Act II, the event is announced in the past tense. Then this adaptation fills out the second act, which has little relation to the book’s denouement, by making the Old Man delusional, reliving the experience in the safety of his tiny cabin.
That cabin looks a lot comfier than the one in the book. The set design, done by Mr. Siebels, is clever and effective in Act I, but when the action moves to the cabin, what should be the “place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal,” as Hemingway described it, is represented by the stage itself, giving the impression that this humble abode has gleaming hardwood floors. And there’s a radio, an object that the Old Man refers to elsewhere as something that only rich people have.
As the Old Man (Santiago), Mateo Gómez is more robust than the frail protagonist that Hemingway described. But he seems accurately weary, affable and alternately discouraged and determined. Mr. Ting, who also directed, makes him a playful old fellow. After all, this is a man whose greatest interests, beyond fishing, are beer and American baseball, particularly the New York Yankees and the great Joe DiMaggio.
Rey Lucas is charming as the Boy (Manolin) and doubles as the narrator, who is a much-needed figure. That’s true from a literary point of view, but also for practical reasons in cases when it might be faintly ridiculous to have the Old Man speak the words himself. “The dark water of the gulf is the greatest healer that there is,” the Boy says when the Old Man injures himself. “If you cut your hand, bleed it clean and let the salt water heal it.”
The two men are joined by Leajato Robinson as a seemingly uninterested and deliberately disinterested third party. His character, Cienfuegos, stars in the Casablanca arm-wrestling scene from the book and punctuates the action with pretty Spanish folk songs by John Gromada, accompanying himself on guitar.
“The Old Man and the Sea” comments with great dignity on a kettle-full of human emotions and experiences: regret; rationalization; pride and humiliation; and the struggle to stay alive, safe and solvent (the Old Man hasn’t caught a single fish in 84 days). It is also about the horror of watching everything you have worked so hard for fall apart, faster than you could have ever imagined. Or maybe that aspect of the story rings so true, loud and clear right now because of these terrifying financial times.