The City of Bangor was built on the success of the lumber industry, so it’s really not surprising that the Penobscot Theatre Company would highlight this important part of the region’s history with a show that puts lumberjacks — the burly, bearded man, wielding axes, dressed in flannel, felling trees in the Great North Woods and sending them down the river — front and center.
“Lumberjacks in Love,” the theater’s charming, light-hearted, sweet-natured winter show, opens this week at the Bangor Opera House and runs through Feb. 19. It’s another musical from writing partners Fred Alley and James Kaplan, who wrote “Guys on Ice,” the ice fishing musical which the theater produced in February 2015.
“I think [Alley and Kaplan] have a way of writing about masculinity and traditionally masculine worlds, like ice fishing and lumberjacks, that really fleshes out the reality of the men that did that,” said Dominick Varney, the PTC stalwart who directed “Lumberjacks in Love” and who also directed “Guys on Ice.” “They’re not one-dimensional at all.”
The PTC production of “Lumberjacks in Love” is set in the 1920s, at the height of the lumber industry’s power in Maine and in the U.S. Though Alley and Kaplan originally set the show in Minnesota — another major region in the lumber industry — Varney has moved the setting to Maine for PTC’s production.
“There was only one reference in the show to the show being set in Minnesota, and the jokes and the story are really so applicable to Maine as well, that it was easy to just shift the location,” said Varney. “It totally works.”
Before beginning work on the production, Varney did lots of research into Maine’s lumber industry history, including visiting the Lumbermen’s Museum in Patten and reading archives at the University of Maine.
“I think people know that the lumber industry was an important part of Maine, but I don’t think they know quite how important it really was,” said Varney. “The peavey was invented here. Maine lumber built a huge percentage of the houses built in the 1800s in America. It really helped create America’s economic infrastructure.”
In the show, four lumberjacks — Muskat, played by Ben Layman, Moonlight, played Matt Madore (both seen in “Guys on Ice”), Dirty Bob, played by Brad LaBree, and Minnesota Slim, played by PTC newcomer Cory Osborne — are living in “manly bliss” at the Haywire Lumber Camp. Baths are rare. Women are even rarer. When two women arrive (Brianne Beck and Heather Libby), things are thrown into disarray.
“In reality, these men lived in shanties like this for months at a time, with no cleaning, no bathing. Being a lumberjack was one of the most dangerous jobs in U.S. history. It was dirty and dangerous, and yet they chose to do it,” said Varney. “It’s really juxtaposing this very tough, strong, manly job, with the hearts and emotions and dreams of these four guys. That’s what it’s all about … and it’s just really funny and sweet.”
The lumber camp, and the flannel, dungarees and winter wear sported by the lumberjacks, were designed by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, twin sisters who are sharing the roles of scenic and costume designers. They are from Axis Studios Design, a design team based in Atlanta. It’s the sisters’ first time working at PTC, and artistic director Bari Newport had long wanted to bring them to Bangor.
The many period-specific items decorating the camp were assembled by PTC stage manager and properties manager Meredith Perry, who scoured the Bangor area for early 20th century items to make it all look as authentic as possible.
“Everything in this camp was by hand, with no electricity. Things were water-powered. There’s a hand-crank Victrola,” said Varney. “Meredith made axes by hand, and they look amazing. She really went the extra distance to make it look like a real 1920s lumber shanty.”
PTC has made a new habit of having its winter show be a production that reflects the history and experiences of people in eastern Maine, including the world premieres of Orono playwright Travis Baker’s two Maine-set plays, “One Blue Tarp” in 2014 and “Hair Frenzy” in 2016, and “Guys on Ice,” a musical about one of Maine’s most popular winter activities, ice fishing, staged in 2015.
“It is really good to see Maine performers onstage, and to hear Maine stories told onstage,” said Varney. “I think it helps people understand that Maine stories are part of the history of this country, and are still an important part of American history.”
A show like “Lumberjacks in Love” in particular, Varney believes, can bring a little levity to the cold winter months — though it does tell a story about history, it’s also a story about love, friendship and singing and dancing lumberjacks.
“There’s not much funnier than seeing a bunch of burly lumberjacks dancing around with axes,” he said.
“Lumberjacks in Love” runs Wednesday through Sundays, Feb. 2 through 19, at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets, priced between $25 and $38 alongside $10 student rush tickets, are available at the box office, by calling 942-3333, or online at penobscottheatre.org.