Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" Anchors at Long Wharf

Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" Anchors at Long Wharf A literary classic about man and beast, age and youth, nature and time surfaces on stage.
Old Man and the Sea stars Mateo G
Old Man and the Sea stars Mateo G Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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"'The Old Man and the Sea' was the first novel my father ever gave me to read," Eric Ting says. "My father died between my junior and senior years in high school. So this project hits very close to home."

The project Ting is talking about is the world premiere of a stage version of the 1952 Ernest Hemingway novella, which he is directing at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, where he is the associate artistic director.

The idea, Ting says, was broached several years ago by a friend, Craig Siebels, a theatre and film designer with whom he collaborated on adapting the novella (and who designed the set). "The opportunity to do it came up last year," Ting says. "Every year at Long Wharf we want to market three of our mainstage plays to schools. We were brainstorming, and I put Old Man and the Sea on the table. Our artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, found it intriguing. I think he was attracted to the parable nature of the book. Its lasting allure is that it's almost mythic."

In the classic work, Hemingway writes about what happens when an old Cuban fisherman, having gone 84 days without a catch, hooks a giant marlin on the 85th day — and about his apprentice, a young boy. The boy's parents, dismayed by the old man's failures, tell their son to go to sea with fishermen who return with full boats. Ting, who has been at Long Wharf for five years, says that the story of the old man is "almost like the tale of Icarus — the idea of reaching too high and falling. The man has gone so long without a fish that he decides to go farther out than he has ever gone. He ultimately captures and kills the largest fish he has ever seen — a monumental feat for a man his age." The old man thinks about the money he will get for the marlin and the number of people he will feed. "But the fish is too large for the boat, so he has to attach it to the side. And he is beset by sharks, who devour the evidence of his great feat," leaving only a skeleton.

The Old Man and the Sea does not easily lend itself to a stage dramatization, Ting says. "It's not like a movie, where you can have a close-up of a man in a boat. What we chose to focus on was the relationship between the old man and the boy, who is a secondary character in the book, where you see him at the beginning and at the end. But their relationship is a kind of anchor for the adaptation. We're looking for the connection between the people."

The first act "follows the trajectory of the old man's struggle with the giant marlin, from the first nibble to when he finally catches it. Interwoven are flashbacks of the old man and the boy, tracking the events that led up to his going to sea. The second act plays around with narrative conventions and confronts the consequences of the old man's actions." The old man is portrayed by veteran actor Mateo Gómez, whose film credits include "Delta Force 2" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Ting says that a great deal of the play "is about the old man wanting to pass on his wisdom and experience to the boy." So it makes sense, he says, that "in creating the adaptation, I've often been reminded about my father."

Rey Lucas and Mateo G
Rey Lucas and Mateo G Photo by T. Charles Erickson