On the Waterfront

Thalian Association brings history to life on the USS North Carolina

By Nicholas Gray

When I brought Chandler Davis onboard as managing director of City Stage two years ago, I knew she would be up for great innovations in our local theater community. As creative as she is organized, Chandler was named artistic director of Wilmington’s Thalian Association early last summer. And she has now taken the helm as director of their untraditional production of Mr. Roberts, by Thomas Heggan and Joshua Logan, which is being staged on the fantail of the historic USS North Carolina on the Wilmington riverfront.

Bringing Mr. Roberts to life on a battleship is the brainchild of the Thalian Association’s executive director, Susan Habas, who intended to create a fundraiser for both the Battleship North Carolina and Thalian’s kid-friendly stage TACT, while also fulfilling the association’s mission to create innovative performing arts productions in our region.

“We’ve managed the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center since 1994,” says Habas. “Our offices are literally in a World War II museum, and honoring the sacrifices and meaning of the war is always on our minds . . . and we are privileged to be partnered with the most decorated battleship of that time.” And Terry Bragg, the executive director of Battleship North Carolina, was enthusiastic: “It’s a unique way for us to support local theater while highlighting historic Wilmington’s scenic waterfront.”

And so came the production of Mr. Roberts. Driven by the success of the film, which stars Henry Fonda, James Cagney and Jack Lemmon, who won an Academy Award for his role as Ensign Frank Pulver, Mr. Roberts is a perfect choice for this mode of theatrical transport — the original play is set on the fantail of a battleship. Based on the 1946 Thomas Heggen novel of the same name, Mr. Roberts began as a collection of short stories about Heggen’s experiences aboard the cargo ships USS Virgo and USS Rotanin in the South Pacific during World War II, and though based on our country’s wartime history, Davis says the play appeals not only to veterans, but in its comic form, to all. And it will be a theatrical experience unlike any other. As Davis says, “It’s not like you’re watching a play, it’s like you’ve been dropped onto a ship.”

Mr. Roberts runs on the Battleship North Carolina, 1 Battleship Road, Wilmington, from July 4 to 23, 2017; Thursdays-Sundays 8 p.m. Tickets $15-$50, with a local resident, youth, senior, group, and military discounts. www.thalian.org or www.battleshipnc.com; see special rates for July 4th performance.

Nicholas Gray is the former artistic director of City Stage Co.

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