SURREY — When the “Titanic” sank in the icy waters of the Atlantic more than a century ago, J. Bruce Ismay became the scapegoat.
The British shipbuilder, boss of the White Star Line, was widely condemned as a coward for stepping aboard the ship’s last lifeboat that fateful night, though he was also known to help save as many passengers as possible. Even so, newspapers roasted him, lawsuits were launched and Ismay was forever haunted by the maritime disaster that killed close to 1,500 people.
The tragedy is brought to the Surrey Little Theatre stage this month in “The Last Lifeboat,” a play written by L.A.-based playwright and actor Luke Yankee.
Locally, director Dale Kelly calls the story “a parable for our times, (a) tale of one man’s destiny, shaped by good, if misguided decisions. The play shows how we are judged by our actions, not our intentions.”
At Surrey Little Theatre, 15 cast members play multiple roles in the drama, which opens a month-long run on Thursday, April 14 — exactly 104 years after the “Titanic” was sliced open by an iceberg; the ship sank hours later, on April 15, 1912.
All hands are on deck for this one, so to speak.
“We probably have, between cast and crew, 30 people involved in the play,” said Mike Busswood, who is the show’s production manager and is also among the actors.
“All the costumes, they’re period, of course, and Pat McClean, who is doing all the costumes – something like 60 or 70 of them – can tell you about all the costumes involved because so many actors are changing constantly. The only way for the audience to know that it’s a different character is by the changed costume. It’s amazing.”
Busswood plays various people in Ismay’s life, including his father and “Titanic” captain Edward Smith, who, unlike Ismay, went down with the ship.
Other adult actors in the production include Busswood’s daughter, Kait Busswood, along with Ben Odberg, Colleen Bignell, Eric Fortin, Izzy Carter, Jay Martens, Julia Grace, Rebecca Strom, Robert Livingston and Ryan Johnson. Four children – Madison Fisher, Keoni Rebeiro, Owen Carlson and Raychel Taylor – are also cast.
“We all switch off in a number of roles, and everybody’s pitching in because of the nature of what we’ve done with the (staging),” said Busswood, who helped build the set for “The Last Lifeboat” and is president of the non-profit society that runs Surrey Little Theatre.
“We build a lifeboat just prior to the intermission, on stage.”
The play becomes a courtroom drama in the second act, with Ismay fighting for his reputation and legal good standing.
“He was held for four months in the U.S. immediately after the sinking while they tried to prove it was his fault, which of course in hindsight is ridiculous because they hit an iceberg,” Busswood explained. “But back in the day he had a fight with (newspaper publisher) William Randolph Hearst, and Hearst took the opportunity to try to make (the disaster) his fault, saying he should have gone down with the ship because that’s what real men did.”
Ultimately, there weren’t enough lifeboats on the ship to save all passengers.
“The ‘Titanic story’ has always intrigued me,” Busswood added. “It was the very first time that a ship of note on its maiden voyage went down so disastrously, and it was the first time that quite a number of rich people died as a result of it, and that all made it very much at the forefront of the news of the day. A number of high-society people didn’t make it, and that helped cause quite a number of changes to the Merchant Marine Act at the time.”
“The Last Lifeboat” represents Surrey Little Theatre’s entry in a regional theatre festival. If deemed a winner at the Fraser Valley stage in May, the production would be entered in Theatre BC’s Mainstage event in July.
The play runs Thursdays to Saturdays, starting at 8 p.m., from April 14 to May 14, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees on April 24, May 1 and 8. For details, visit Surreylittletheatre.com; for tickets ($15), click on Brownpapertickets.com/event/1691821.