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Sciovahn Lydston-Barron as Florence, Robert Zuniga as Sally, Tami Kai as Josie. Below: Sarah Hamilton as Ruthie, John Boyd as Porker Photos: David Nobles
February 8, 2017 Layoffs and possible closures seem likely for small businesses struggling with such matters as financial difficulty or foreign competition. That's especially true today, but it was so in 1986 when Israel Horovitz's play North Shore Fish was premiered. In a script preface, he summed up the play's message by asking, “What happens to people’s dignity when their work is no longer useful or available?’’ Set during one day in a grungy frozen  fish packing plant in Gloucester,  Mass., the storyline centers on a  group of blue collar employees,  mostly women, who keep on keeping  on despite being sure that the plant is  likely to be sold. Sadly, there have  been layoffs and other telling signs.  One of the first must have been when  they began processing frozen fish  from Japan instead of live ones caught locally. It may sound depressing, and a good  deal of it is, but the piece also  overflows with bright, funny dialogue.  Deftly directed by Dylan Brainard,  those lines are delivered with panache  by a uniformly solid cast in the  production now playing at the Sheldon Vexler Theater. As the workers stand or sit at tables, cutting, breading and boxing fish, they chatter, joke and fight among themselves like the workplace family that they have become. Thus, we learn a great deal about many of them – their personal circumstances and dreams, not to mention fears and desperation in the face of losing their livelihoods. Deborah Basham-Burns is affecting as Arlyne, who has worked there for more than 30 years and repeats the same remarks so often that the others chime in with her. She is also the one who plaintively notes, “We're fish people, this is what we do.” Her daughter, Ruthie (Sarah Hamilton) is 9 months pregnant, but continues to work every day. Robert Zuniga gives an impressive portrayal of Salvatore (Sally), the hot-tempered, bullying plant manager and philanderer who tries to seduce virtually all of the women who work for him. His current conquest is Florence, well played as smart, assertive and particularly touchy by Sciovahn Lydston-Barron. And no wonder – she's pregnant and that jerk Sally is married, although he insists that because his was a shotgun wedding when he was only 17, it really doesn't count. Tami Kai brings anxiety and humor to the compulsive overeater Josie, who cracks wise, but is plainly rueful about the painful turns in her life. John Boyd is delightful as Porker, the easygoing, meshuga male employee who tolerates unrelenting verbal abuse from Sally until (hooray) he finally blows. A layered performance by Gretchen Randall as seemingly no-nonsense health inspector Catherine Shimma reveals underlying concern for the workers whose product she has tested and is about to declare a failure. The excellent cast is rounded out by Evie Armstrong and Maureen and Vicky Liendo as Marlena. Ms. Brainard keeps the action taut and logical, effectively making the most of Ken Frazier's keenly detailed, tired-looking set with its multiple doors and raised center offices. Early on, one of the characters noted that the place looked “like a fortune cookie after the paper is out.” Another plus is the relative accuracy of the characters' Boston accents. Often accents are hit or miss with an ensemble this size; most of this cast did surprisingly well – shades of Ted Kennedy. Interestingly, one of Boston-based Horovitz's plays is titled Park Your Car in Harvard Yard. He has authored more than 70 stage works, including Author, Author, Line (now in its 40th continuous year at NYC's 13th St. Repertory Theatre) and Sins of the Mother. Unaccountably, based on seeing this first-class production, North Shore Fish is relatively unknown. Go figure, then go see it. Diane Windeler North Shore Fish runs through Feb. 26 in the Sheldon Vexler Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. Call 302-6835. 
Sheldon Vexler Theatre: North Shore Fish, by Israel Horovitz Packing it in
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