Much less would be known about life in 1930s California if it weren’t for Richard Henry Dana, the East Coast aristocrat-turned-lowly-seaman-turned-successful-maritime-lawyer who penned the memoir Two Years Before the Mast, based on his experiences on the way to and from the West Coast. Among other highlights, Dana’s attendance at the 1836 wedding of Jose De la Guerra’s daughter is what inspired the pageantry surrounding Santa Barbara’s annual Old Spanish Days fiesta. For those who have yet to read the book — which, while ridiculously informative, also has the occasional dry spells that should be expected from a narrative nearly 200 years old — there’s another option this weekend: actor Jeffrey Paul Whitman’s one-man performance of the book’s liveliest episodes, in which he acts as Dana, the ship’s captain, the first mate, and a handful of other colorful characters.
“It’s a great challenge as an actor to play all those characters,” said Whitman, who does one particular scene with five different characters, differentiating them through changes in voice, facial expressions, and physicality despite not much background in maritime lore. “I’m not a sailor,” he said. “I play a sailor. I’m prone to seasickness like you can’t believe. I got sick on the Pilgrim just like Dana did.” He took over the show in 1993 after the originator had been doing it 12 years, making this the 30th anniversary of its on-and-off-again run, which usually happens on the deck of such tall ships as the Pilgrim in Dana Point — a replica of Dana’s original vessel — as well as others in San Diego, San Francisco, and even Mystic, Connecticut, not to mention a 2005 show for the Dana family reunion.
A therapist by day, Whitman’s studies of psychology and counseling have given him insight into certain characters, but only the right amount. “I understand some of the psychology behind the captain and the first mate better,” he explained, “but I try not to get too heady in my interpretation of what Dana does. I let my heart and my emotions be my guide with him.” And it may not be for much longer, for at 50 years old, Whitman is older than Dana was during the trip, and is looking to pass it along to another actor someday soon.
Whitman as Dana and others will be on the Munger Theater stage at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (113 Harbor Wy., Ste. 190) on Saturday, October 15, 4 and 7 p.m.. Tickets are $10 for members, $15 otherwise. Call (805) 962-8404 x115.