Through Aug. 28
Ward Theatre Company, Durham

Brian Eno’s ambient Music for Airports might seem like a musical non sequitur, placed against the eerie slow-motion pantomime of a shipwreck in Ward Theatre Company’s I Wish You a Boat. On the main deck, the champagne-fueled flirtations of a wealthy young couple are interrupted by loud, jarring thumps before the woman falls, with accidental grace, to the floor. Moments later, a porter ushers the unwilling pair into old-fashioned life jackets, toward safety.

But in 1897, when the drama occurs, steamships were like today’s airliners: imperfect devices conveying travelers over potentially fatal territory. More than fifteen hundred shipwrecks were documented in the nineteenth century, and the odds of surviving an Atlantic passage must have been in the minds of all the passengers.

Eno’s album is about being between places, which makes it even more apt for this immigration story and memento mori. In the second half, which turns to the people in steerage, director Wendy Ward mostly removes the contemplative music and pace that lent aesthetic distance to the fates of the upper class. Pursuing a future in America, immigrants from France, Poland, Albania, and Ukraine mingle in improvised common rooms. Some cultural constants briefly overcome their different languages: hospitality, music, and games. Karin Schmid and Amber Oliver’s crystalline performances express wives’ contempt and concern for restive husbands in a universal tongue.

Then disaster strikes. In its aftermath, we witness desperation, devotion, and sacrifice as the emigrants are largely left to fend for themselves. We feel the emotional impact when the actors pantomime rising waters in the close quarters of Ward’s studio space.

Prefacing and punctuating these chronicles are courtroom scenes featuring actor Robbie Wiggins as a judge assessing blame for the shipwreck. He admits a cross section of society in testimony, from a grieving, humble linen maid (an effective Schmid, again) to a haughty society matron (Katie Sheffield) who keeps her milquetoast husband (Ryan Fleming) on a close verbal leash.

But the energy dips at several points. Oliver, as an oddly preoccupied socialite, has a questionable accent on the witness stand. Recitations of didactic Victorian inspirational verse add little to the work. Low lighting makes details in certain scenes indistinct.

We glimpse the immigrants’ preparations for travel, which include a touching marriage proposal. But when actors have to bring out (and remove) props to establish momentary tableaux, some sequences seem too brief.

Mixing poignancy and emotional distance, Ward crafts a faded, torn tapestry of a disaster. History, we realize, is always incomplete. I Wish You a Boat reminds us of whatand whowe’re missing.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Diving into the Wreck”