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Arena’s “Swept Away” is a Dark Tale on the High Seas with Music by Grammy Winners The Avett Brothers

Swept Away opens with a slow burn culminating into an edge-of-your-seat drama. Scored by The Avett Brothers, an American Roots band that has earned three Grammy Awards, it focuses on the waning days of the whaling trade when whale products were the primary commerce out of the New Bedford, Massachusetts port.

Stark Sands (Big Brother) and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Two brothers, named in the program as Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) and Big Brother (Stark Sands), are on the final voyage of one of the last whaling ships to ply the Atlantic Ocean. They have come from a New England farm, where Little Brother ran off to seek adventure and Big Brother followed him onto the ship to convince him to come back home. “It’s seed-planting season,” he pleads.

Stark Sands (Big Brother), Wayne Duvall (Captain), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), John Gallagher Jr, (Mate). Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), Tyrone L. Robinson (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Cameron Johnson (Ensemble) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

But the ship raises anchor before Big Brother can disembark, and now the two boys must begin their adventure together.

The music, taken from the Avett’s Mignonette album, is the glue that holds the plot together, with only one song written exclusively for the show. Avett Brothers’ fans, and there seemed to be many in the audience, will recognize their Roots music. Though the combination of soulful and up-tempo songs is part of the composers’ canon, they had not been written with the show in mind but seem to dovetail seamlessly into the plot.

Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Wayne Duvall (Captain), and Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

It opens with three men imploring a recuperating crewmember to tell the truth, to “tell the whole story.” He begins with, “Twenty-one days lost at sea,” a familiar tale to anyone who knows the perils sailors faced in those times. Cue Moby Dick.

The story then flashes back to 1888, when the men set sail for the deepest waters of the Atlantic Ocean on their quest to harpoon the massive mammal for a king’s ransom. We meet the rowdy crew of hardened sailors, the Mate (John Gallagher, Jr.) and the Captain (Wayne Duvall).

In a show of camaraderie, the sailors bond with each other and the Mate refers to the ragtag crew, “We are pagans and idolators here!” A rowdy group of hardened men unknown to these two hayseeds raised within the Church. “What are we but useless men plying a dying trade,” the Captain asks. Throughout the script and within the lyrics are multiple references to God and salvation.

Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), Stark Sands (Big Brother), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), and Wayne Duvall (Captain) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Soon the men encounter a terrible storm. The ship goes down and the Captain, the Mate, and the two boys are set adrift in a lifeboat. This is where the story goes very dark and becomes well-reflected musically by the striking change in mood.

Orville Mendoza (Ensemble), Taurean Everett (Ensemble), Stark Sands (Big Brother), Adrian Blake Enscoe (Little Brother), Jamari Johnson Williams (Ensemble), John Gallagher, Jr. (Mate), Michael J. Mainwaring (Ensemble), John Sygar (Ensemble), and Matt DeAngelis (Ensemble) in Arena Stage’s East Coast premiere of Swept Away. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by David Neumann, Swept Away is bolstered by the talents of Set Designer Rachel Hauck, who has created a ghostly ship with old-fashioned rigging to fill the stage and backdrop the sailors’ merriment. Yes! There is hornpipe dancing when the men bond as they set to sea.

Later, Lighting Designer Kevin Adams, along with Sound Designer John Shivers and Stage Command Systems’ sophisticated technology seal the dizzying drama that ensues.

Ensemble members: Hunter Brown, Matt DeAngelis, Taurean Everett (and Dance Captain), Cameron Johnson, Brandon Kalm, Michael J. Mainwaring, Orville Mendoza, Tyrone Robinson, John Sygar, and Jamari Johnson Williams.

Book by John Logan; Music Arrangements and Orchestrations by Brian Usifer and Chris Miller; Music Director Will Van Dyke; Costume Designer Susan Hilferty.

In the Kreeger Theater through January 14, 2024, at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, Washington, DC 20024. Visit for tickets and information.

Jordan Wright

Jordan Wright is a noted publisher and writer focused on food, spirits, travel, theatre and lifestyles.  Her writing can also be found on her personal website

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