WEEKEND: Play shares untold tale of Titanic

DUNGENESS — One unthinkable night 100 years ago, J. Bruce Ismay climbed into a lifeboat and survived a tragedy he had played a role in: the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Ismay was the one who ordered the ship’s number of lifeboats reduced drastically — from 48 down to 16 — to make more space for luxuries to attract its wealthy passengers. And those lifeboats would never be needed because, April 1912 newspaper headlines proclaimed, this was a ship not even God could bring asunder.

Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line that built the Titanic, lived the rest of his life under a hard rain of blame. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, papers dubbed him “J. Brute Ismay” and one of history’s worst cowards.

Back home in London, he was ostracized; he retired from White Star in June 1913 and stayed mostly out of the public eye.

Story told tonight

Starting tonight, Ismay will reappear in a largely untold story: “The Last Lifeboat,” a new play by Luke Yankee to premiere at the Dungeness Schoolhouse, 2781 Towne Road. Curtain times are 7:30 tonight and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and admission is free.

“The Last Lifeboat” is a Readers Theatre Plus presentation, starring Pat Owens as Ismay and Kristin LaMoure as his wife, Julia Florence Ismay, plus 26 other performers.

The production, Readers Theatre Plus’ biggest ever, is a staged reading directed by Jim Dries, who with his wife, Carol Swarbrick Dries, performed earlier this month in “Titanic: The Concert” at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

Dries expressed gratitude to Yankee for allowing Readers Theatre to present “Lifeboat,” a play that is altogether unlike other Titanic productions.

Ismay’s life

It follows Ismay on his personal journey, across moments in time: the night of the sinking, events in his boyhood, the day he met the woman who would be his wife, the grand day the Titanic set sail, the night of the sinking, the U.S. Senate hearings afterward.

The play is about Ismay’s relationships, said Dries: with his wife, his children and Vivian, a woman from his past.

He was involved with Vivian (portrayed by well-known Sequim actress Shelley Taylor), but his parents considered her below his social class, and so Ismay did not marry her.

“People have strong opinions about Ismay. Was he a coward? I’ve decided to just play him as a human being,” Owens said in an interview this week.

“The Last Lifeboat” opens with Ismay saving the life of a little girl on the Titanic and then bounces to and fro through decades, all the way forward to Ismay’s death 25 years after the Titanic.

Owens was especially moved by a scene toward the end of “Lifeboat,” when Ismay encounters the little girl he saved after she’s grown up to be a woman.

The playwright “tries to show him not as a hero,” Owens said, “but at least as a sympathetic character.”

Alongside Ismay/Owens is John Jacob Astor, the richest passenger on the Titanic.

Joel Yelland, an actor, singer and medical director at the Lower Elwha ­Klallam Health Center, portrays the 47-year-old Astor.

The young actress Danae Johnson portrays Astor’s 18-year-old wife, Madeleine.

Actor’s connection

Yelland has a personal connection to this story: His great-grandfather, Herbert Fuller Chaffee, was among the first-class passengers who perished when the Titanic went down. And just as Madeleine Astor survived, so did Carrie Chaffee, Yelland’s great-grandmother.

Yelland, for his part, has been fascinated by the shipwreck as long as he can remember; “The Last Lifeboat,” he said, differs from much of the Titanic lore in that it explores the aftermath, and a man whose decisions marked him for life.

“We’re always looking for villains. Maybe Ismay got a bad rap,” Yelland said.

“We read about the great loss of life. But this [story] makes it much more personal.”

Admission to the four performances of “The Last Lifeboat” is free, but since seating at the Dungeness Schoolhouse is limited, patrons are urged to pick up tickets at Odyssey Bookshop, 114 W. Front St., Port Angeles, or at Pacific Mist Books, 121 W. Washington St., Sequim.

An arrival of 15 minutes before showtime is advised. Seating for those without tickets will be provided at the door as space is available.

For more information, phone Readers Theatre Plus at 360-681-3862.


Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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