In John Logan’s play “Red,” the audience enters the studio of painter Mark Rothko to hear his intense opinions on life and art.
Of a similar setup — and similar casting as Virginia Repertory Theatre’s 2013 staging of “Red” — is local playwright Bo Wilson’s “The Boatwright,” running at the Firehouse Theatre. Both works have featured David Bridgewater as the lead, explaining the ways of the world to a younger man.
In “Boatwright,” a garage in the Midwest has replaced Rothko’s studio, and Rothko is now Ben, a retired state trooper. Recently made a widower, Ben has decided to work through his feelings by constructing a sailboat in his garage. His peaceful isolation is interrupted one night by his drunk, next-door neighbor Jaime (Tyler Stevens), a 19-year-old who has been temporarily suspended from film school. Jaime decides that Ben’s endeavor would be the perfect fodder for a documentary, and the two embark on tale of humanity and cross-generational camaraderie.
Under Gary C. Hopper’s direction, Wilson’s script is successful in its humble aims. These are not two characters who set out to destroy each other’s outlooks on life, but through their slow-grown bond, come out better than they were before. The play feels personal and has a homespun charm that’s hard to create without feeling contrived.
Bridgewater often is given the thankless task of humanizing a gruff individual, and “Boatwright” is yet another instance where he succeeds, creating a middle-aged man with more bluster than bite. While Bridgewater relies on many of his familiar ticks, he hits the right tone for the show.
But it’s Stevens who has the standout performance, delivering a tightly crafted and naturalistic portrayal of a twitchy 19-year-old whose emotions run the spectrum. Naively excitable early on, despairing to the point of destruction later, Stevens manages the role without it devolving into histrionics.
Rich Mason’s garage workshop is very realistic, and the filmed portions are a boon to the show, helping to break up some of the dialogue. Stevens’ final video, in which he speaks directly to the audience, is the emotional highpoint of the evening.
At times in the first act, Wilson’s script can get bogged down in the insights of a man who offers when-men-were-men speeches to a largely silent 19-year-old. But the play kicks into high gear in the second act as Jaime begins to unravel.
For some of Bridgewater’s monologues, lighting designer Michael Jarett has dimmed the lights to spotlight the actor, which is an unnecessary exclamation point to what’s happening.
Altogether, “The Boatwright” is a pleasing play that never overshoots its aims, preferring to tell the modest tale of two men and the bond that they forge. S
“The Boatwright” plays through March 4 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.