The Old Man and the Sea depicts the struggle against adversity as internal. Though the thrashing of the fish is violent and in certain passages Hemingway's writing is so powerful and precise that one can actually feel the ebb and flow of strength in the Old Man's hands, it is a very still book. External events are viewed through the shadows of a tired brain and failing eyes; words come slowly, chasing after thoughts too rich to reduce to words.
It's only secondly a novel about manhood.
Yet the manhood theme is easiest to tackle onstage. Eric Ting and Craig Siebels, who turned the novel into the play, grokked this. They greatly expanded the role of Manilo (Ismael Cruz Cordova), the Old Man's apprentice, who grabs the spotlight every few minutes to tell stories of the Old Man in his luckier days. Manilo is the Old Man's faithful sponge. In depicting the transfusion of the Old Man's knowledge to Manilo, Ting and Siebels sought to show us some of what manhood means, or can mean. They succeeded.
In other areas, they failed, though bravely — and both their successes and failures are abetted in Caldwell's uneven production by a cast that communicates the essence of Ting's and Siebels' creation while utterly flubbing its tone. Hemingway may be many things, but he mustn't ever be overstated. Yet Clive Cholerton has directed The Old Man and the Sea as Theater with a capital T. The actors project their voices with Broadway vivacity, and their bodies move like those of dancers. Age, joy, pain, and weariness are performed rather than implied. In certain moments, jazz fingers would not seem out of place.
The chief difficulty in rendering a credible The Old Man and the Sea onstage is, first, that you cannot train a fish, and second, that the ocean will not fit in a theater. Unless you are willing to invest serious coinage in special effects, the Old Man's fight with the marlin must be mimed. And unless you are willing to build a pool or invest in hydraulics, your boat will be a sad and stationary thing. Set designer Tim Bennett's ancient-looking skiff is visually appealing but unmistakably landlocked. Its stasis may be overcome only by acting, and though the fellow playing Old Man Santiago (David Pendelton) often succeeds, the freneticism with which he does so robs the character of his grit and stoicism. In his rush to sell the part, Pendelton's voice often swoops up into an excited falsetto. He communicates more gravitas with his headshot in the program than in all of The Old Man and the Sea's 90-minute run time.
With Santiago dishing his fishy wisdom and Manilo listening from behind his wide eyes, it is left to a tertiary character, Cienfuegos (Leajato Amara Robinson), to create atmosphere and anchor the production to a time and place. That should be pre-Revolutionary coastal Cuba, and the way Cienfuegos is meant to anchor us there is by assuming a small handful of supporting roles, playing his guitar, and singing. He does the supporting roles fine — when he briefly assumes the persona of a beefy dockhand Santiago once arm-wrestled for a full day and night in his vital youth, Robinson's lithe frame actually seems to grow — and his guitar playing is scrappy and mournful. But his pretty singing sounds not at all Cuban and not at all blue, and for the most part, his performance is extremely metropolitan. Immaculately polished and utterly gritless. Do these guys even read Hemingway?
That said, The Old Man and the Sea is an effective drama as long as you agree to leave your thoughts and feelings about Hemingway, Cuba, and oceangoing at the door. That's a tall order, I know. The play's successes are mostly owed to Ismael Cruz Cordova's achingly gorgeous portrayal of Manilo, whose love for his old mentor is evident in his every word and gesture. The Old Man and the Sea comes across most forcefully in the early scenes, when Manilo is witnessing the Old Man's graceful acquiescence to old age and his preternatural run of bad luck (he has gone 84 days without catching a fish); it's also evident in the later scenes when he is watching the Old Man's cognitive breakdown after hauling the skeleton of the great marlin back to the beach. In the earlier scenes, some good actorly alchemy is at work: Manilo is the picture of attentiveness, his face rising and falling with Santiago's every syllable, and Santiago is enlivened in exact proportion to Santiago's interest. In the latter ones, Manilo is shattered: In his face, though not his words, you can see him realizing that age is a betrayal by life; that all the strength one gains through hard-headedness, hard work, craft, and determination is really only on loan; and that one nevertheless becomes dependent on it. On Cordova's face, we may catch the moment when Manilo realizes that he will only become this decrepit thing if he is very lucky. It takes real skill to live so long, fight so hard, and fail so late.