Eric Rohmer suffuses his 1996 film A Summer’s Tale with the sea mist that France’s Atlantic coast is known for. It’s an ordinary story of a handsome young man whose good fortune with the opposite sex fogs up his adolescent brain. Three girls vie for his attention but he cannot make up his mind. On one of his many rendezvous, he and his date sail the harbor and harmonize on a sea shanty. Suddenly the prosaic plot line takes on a plangent quality and we start to care about the confused state of his heart.
In her diverting theatrical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, Mary Zimmerman achieves the same effect through the use of music and song. Stevenson’s 1881 pirate story has been imitated so many times since that its originality has been forgotten or blurred. Pirate stories have devolved into Disneyfied eye-patched, peg-legged and much parroted clichés. In spite of all the pop culture flotsam and jetsam, Zimmerman’s conception reinvigorates this seafaring tale.
The first people to appear on stage are musicians — a flautist, a guitarist and a fiddler. They play throughout the evening, usually just to one side of the drama. The songs they play are the best iterations of folk music. Plaintive ballads that summon a bygone era. Lively jigs to corral the cast together in harmony. This version of Treasure Island isn’t a musical per se. But when the songs arrive, they make dramatic sense while enhancing the emotional life of the characters.
The hero of our story, of course, is Jim Hawkins, played by the hardworking, rosy-cheeked John Babbo. He bears a striking resemblance to the British actor Steve Coogan. That is, if Steve Coogan had ever embodied the fresh face of optimism and innocence. Jim and his widowed mother (Kasey Foster) run a seaside inn. When the scarred face of Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue) appears at their door with a locked sea chest, Jim’s maritime adventure of a lifetime is set to begin.
Babbo’s co-stars are uniformly strong and endearing. Donahue, in possession of the treasure map, is full of frightening charm as the drunkard Billy Bones. Then, in a second role, he does an about face as the manservant Redruth, delivering caustic lines that rival the best of Stephen Fry’s dialogue as the wry butler Jeeves. As Jim’s mother, Kasey Foster’s dour role at first looked like it was meant to be a throwaway. When she later appears onstage to sing a song to her son, her pure voice makes for a heartbreaking moment that you wish would last a little while longer. She is also fetching as a bearded pirate.
But there’s a much needed lunatic energy unleashed when Steven Epp as Long John Silver shows up. Epp brings a magical blend of wit and terror to the role. He’s the moral counterpoint to Jim’s essential decency. Epp tears through his lines like a shark smelling blood in the water. But Long John Silver isn’t all bad: he’s merely an opportunist, a smart politician who knows which side to support when the ship is about to capsize. Babbo and Epp also have believable chemistry: Long John Silver is the father figure in the play who teaches Jim the most.
Having no children of my own to speak of, I borrowed my favorite 5th grader from her family to be my plus one. It was a smart move. Not only was I able to drop my cynic’s shield but I was also able to see the play through my companion’s eyes (a murder scene was deemed inappropriate for a younger pair of eyes, say, 1st graders). The elevated stage itself, which rocked and swayed like a ship’s hull on ocean waves, was an instant delight, suggesting transport to another world.
The lighting design, by T.J. Gerckens, cast a variety of changing colors onto a torn white sail to conjure a storm or the dawn. This work was subtly done evoking a beautiful moodiness that matched the ongoing contest of wills in search of all those bloody doubloons. Treasure Island ends with a final sea shanty that recalled the sentiment of “Auld Lang Syne”. It gave meaning to the loss of innocence we’d witnessed, and brought the cast together in song to forgive, even and equally, the guilty of their sins.
Treasure Island, through June 5 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949.