The Showboat Earns Its Name Again

The Thalian Association Community Theatre will present the 1948 play Mister Roberts on the aft deck of the USS North Carolina 13 nights in July.

Written by: Diana Matthews | Photography by: Kimberly Dam

For 13 nights in July, the fantail of World War II’s most-decorated battleship will be transformed into the fictional supply ship Reluctant as the Thalian Association Community Theatre presents Mister Roberts.

Performances will be 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 4th, and 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays on the following three weekends.

In case of rain, the performance will move to the ship’s newly-restored wardroom.

Tickets for all shows are on sale at thalian.org or battleshipnc.com as well as in the battleship’s visitor center. Special ticket prices for opening night on July 4th are $50 for adults and $25 for children, including both a 6 p.m. reception and a grand view of downtown Wilmington’s 9 p.m. fireworks display.

Regular show tickets are $30 for adults, with discounts for seniors, children, retired and active military, and parties of 12 or more. Funds raised will help preserve the Battleship North Carolina and support TACT’s continued arts opportunities for the region.

The Show

“How did you ever get into the Navy? How did you get on our side? You are exactly what I signed up to fight against!

With those words from act one, Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug Roberts confronts his commanding officer and invites a court-martial, somewhere in the remote South Pacific in the waning days of the second world war.

Mister Roberts is based on the wartime experiences of author Thomas Heggen and was made into a 1955 film starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon.

Conscientious cargo officer Roberts of the USS Reluctant desperately longs to transfer to a battleship, but the Reluctant’s scheming captain, Lieutenant Commander Morton, thwarts his attempts.

Morton tyrannizes his increasingly bored and disgruntled crew until Roberts makes a secret deal to keep peace on board ship, leading to both tense drama and sparkling comedy. Even if he never gets to face the Japanese, Roberts will have the opportunity to be a hero, at least to his crew.

The “Showboat”

Ticket-holders who enjoy the live drama overlooking the Cape Fear River will be sitting on the same deck where sailors of seventy-plus years ago watched movies under the stars after a hard day’s work. That is, if they were lucky enough not to be in a battle zone.

The North Carolina was everything that the play’s fictional Reluctant was not, participating in every major naval Pacific offensive from 1942-1945 and earning 15 battle stars.

Mister Roberts is the first collaboration between the Friends of the Battleship and TACT. In 2015 a visiting actor suggested the on-deck production, and “we were immediately excited about the synergy of partnering with the most decorated battleship of WWII,” said TACT executive director Susan Habas. “Getting to know the Battleship, a memorial that means so much to so many, is a very humbling experience.”

TACT, North Carolina’s oldest community theatre group, performs five plays a year on the main stage of Wilmington’s 1858 Thalian Hall and sponsors five youth theatre productions a year.

Behind the Scenes

Said artistic director Chandler Davis, “I think audiences are going to have a lot of fun. The guys get into a lot of shenanigans on the ship which are pretty funny, but there’s also a deep friendship between a lot of them which is really touching.”

Playing the title role is Woody Stefl, whom audience members have seen playing the role of Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple.

“I served in the Navy for four years,” said Stefl, “and the battleship is a wonderful setting.” Stefl’s favorite scene comes when Roberts hears a radio commentator announcing victory in Europe and decides to take action against his own enemy, Captain Morton.

Sydney Smith Martin plays Lieutenant Ann Girard, one of only two female roles in the play. This is her third Thalian show, and she has appeared in numerous Kathy Snow productions as well. It will be “a really cool experience for audience members” to watch the action on deck, making them feel “almost like they’ve been plopped down on the ship with the crew.” Her character, a nurse from a base hospital, is invited to visit Pulver’s quarters with the promise of a drink of Roberts’ Scotch whisky. Pulver finds out that Roberts has given the bottle away, so Roberts, Doc and Pulver scurry around, “trying to make Scotch with multiple different, and not so safe, substances.”

In the role of Morton is Stuart Pike, who said, “My character is the antagonist, and he’s pretty nasty.” Pike has lots of “Captain” roles to his credit, having previously played Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker, and Captain Hook in Peter Pan, as well as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol and the Duke in Bug River.

He summarizes the themes of Mister Roberts by saying, “We all need to stand up for our beliefs and see them through. And sacrificing one’s own goals and ambitions for the betterment of others is still a valued trait.”

Pike enjoys the confrontation scenes, but as the father of two sons who chose military service, he finds an early scene between Roberts and the ship’s doctor “very poignant. That scene is where we hear from Roberts his overwhelming desire to be in the fight.” As Roberts romanticizes the sight of battleships passing by toward combat, “Doc counsels like a father—a concerned father.” In reality, says Pike, there’s “nothing romantic about war, especially when you’re the parent.”

The part of Roberts’ assistant, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Dowdy, is played by Jon Wallin, who has performed in two TACT productions, as well as with Thalian Hall Cube Theatre, Big Dawg Productions, Cape Fear Theatre Arts, and City Stage Co.

Davis and technical director Lance Howell have created a set that makes the most of the unique setting. Actors will wear wireless microphones to ensure that the guests at each open-air show can hear the performance.

Said Davis, “Due to the possibility of bad weather and the capacity of the alternative space in the wardroom, there are 150 tickets available online for every performance, but there will be up to 200 more available at the Battleship box office. Weather will be a daily concern, but overall the production should be smooth sailing.”

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