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‘The Last Lifeboat’: The Other Side of Titanic

The story of the Titanic has been one of vast cultural significance ever since the first film based on the incident was released only 29 days following the actual sinking. Fast forward a century later and its inspiration has been translated in every art medium there is.

Courtesy of Paul Kennedy
Courtesy of Paul Kennedy

However when someone first hears the word “Titanic,” their first thought is the sinking of the ship. It’s the events that happened before the ship’s voyage and after the disaster that haven’t been as widely portrayed. That has changed with the play, “The Last Lifeboat,” which had its premiere at the Claire Trevor School of Arts’ Contemporary Arts Center this past Friday.

“The Last Lifeboat” tells the historical true story of the life of J. Bruce Ismay, the former chairman of White Star Lines, which is the British shipping company that designed the infamous RMS Titanic ocean-liner. Ismay’s name went down in infamy because he had jumped onto a lifeboat on the night of the disaster, saving his own life while others decided nobly to go down with the ship.

“In every depiction of the Titanic, J. Bruce Ismay is portrayed as this very black and white villain,” said playwright Luke Yankee. “He’s seen as very money hungry, or putting on a woman’s coat and hat to sneak onto the lifeboat. None of that is true. In fact, he saved a lot of people’s lives that night,”

Yankee took it upon himself to use this play as a way to debunk many of the myths surrounding Ismay.

“I don’t make it black and white. It’s very much up for the audience to decide for themselves,” Yankee said.

While there is a portion of the play that re-enacts the sinking of the ship, the rest of it focuses on Ismay’s personal life both before and after the disaster, most notably his vilification from the American and British press for alleged neglect of all the passengers that weren’t saved. Yankee first got the inspiration for the play in 2010 while on a cruise to Nova Scotia, the closest landmass where the Titanic sank, and the tour guide brought up J. Bruce Ismay’s story.

Courtesy of Paul Kennedy
Courtesy of Paul Kennedy

Yankee spent the next six months researching into the life of Ismay and the events that unfolded after the Titanic’s sinking — namely the legal proceedings and the efforts Ismay put into trying to help survivors and easing his own guilt.

“No matter how much money he gave to set up pensions for widows or start new survivor organizations, he could never really wash the blood off of his hands. The survivor’s guilt was incredible,” Yankee said.

Even with the notion of knowing how the play’s events would conclude, “The Last Lifeboat” puts on a fresh, honest spin on works of art that retells events surrounding the Titanic. Yankee smartly constructs a sympathetic portrayal of  Ismay, which is equally well-realized by Noah Wagner’s transformative performance as the titular character. Wagner’s casting in the role comes as a surprise because he was one of four community guest actors that played roles — a rarity since most Claire Trevor productions are put on entirely by students.

“[Wagner’s] performance is incredibly demanding. As you will see, he almost never leaves the stage and plays Ismay from age six to 67 based all on body language. There’s no makeup or special effects involved,” said Yankee.

Courtesy of Paul Kennedy
Courtesy of Paul Kennedy

The production values of the mid 1800s/early 1900s settings are stout in their detail and even with limited space to work with on the stage, the combined blocking of the ensemble cast flows very naturally.  The other performances worked well with Wagner’s Ismay, including UCI students Megan Gainey and Catherine Nickerson, who play Florence Ismay and Vivian Hilliard, respectively.

All in all, “The Last Lifeboat” was a well-structured, masterfully produced theatrical performance that offered a fresh take on one of history’s most memorable disaster events.

“The Last Lifeboat” is playing at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Experimental Performance Lab on Nov. 20 and 21 at 8 p.m., and Nov. 22 and 23 at both 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.