Twenty years ago -- the night before "Men's Lives," the first-ever production at Bay Street Theatre previewed -- Billy Joel and then-East Hampton Supervisor Tony Bullock were arrested for seine-hauling striped bass. The ancient netting technique, which Montaukett Indians taught English settlers three centuries ago, had just been banned by Albany.
"But," as I wrote in a July 1992 Newsday review, "no act of civil disobedience could speak as eloquently as Joe Pintauro's characters."
The same can be said today of the author's oral history. In life, as in the play, New York legislators bowed to entreaties by environmentalists and sport fishermen to ban a practice purported to endanger a species. Instead, livelihoods went extinct.
While this East End way of life could not be saved, director Harris Yulin and his cast have preserved and elevated Pintauro's moving polemic, a fitting kickoff to Bay Street's 20th anniversary celebration. Neither the playwright nor Peter Matthiessen, author of the book on which it is based, pretends to balance his case. It's a story told from the baymen's viewpoint because they had no one to tell it. No one except Matthiessen, portrayed by Victor Slezak in a powerfully empathetic narration.
"Men's Lives" focuses on one hardworking family living in a beach shack. Alice, the proud matriarch played unyieldingly by Deborah Hedwall, remembers when "there was as much forest behind us as ocean in front of us." But their Hamptons turf is McMansion-ized by "upstreeters" and weekend fishermen more interested in preserving sport than other men's lives.
Husband Walt, played with a rough kindness by Peter McRobbie, wearies of the battle. It's too late for eldest son Lee, fiercely frustrated as played by Brian Hutchison, to change careers. Kid brother William (Rob DiSario) chafes at the idea of vocational training. Their enemies -- a sport fisherman and a senator -- are represented by fittingly obnoxious Mark Coffin. Ever-present risks in their work are dramatized by a compelling Scott Thomas Hinson and a lost child (Myles Stokowski).
Drew Boyce's sand-and-boardwalk set, surrounding a dory relic, captures a time that refused to stand still.
WHAT "Men's Lives" by Joe Pintauro
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday through July 29, Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor
INFO $56-$66; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org