Editor's Note: Photos to accompany this story can be located at http://www.nmu.edu/fitzgerald
MARQUETTE – Shelley Russell is afraid of water and doesn’t know how to swim. Ironic, considering the professor and playwright derives so much creative inspiration from Lake Superior and its surrounding region.
Her latest effort is "Holdin’ Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The play opens at Northern Michigan University Nov. 8 – two days before the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. The title is based on the final words uttered by Capt. Ernest M. McSorley before the Fitzgerald disappeared beneath the surface.
Lake Superior is the largest body of freshwater in the nation. Russell lives and works a stone’s throw from the south shore. In her mind, she has spent the past year on an ore boat, immersed in thoughts of what transpired during the final hours of that ill-fated voyage. The play focuses more on the crew and the context in which the event occurred than on the Fitzgerald and why she went down.
“Two things fascinated me about this story,” she said. “The first is man and technology. This boat was like a floating factory with all the machinery, yet at that particular moment in that violent storm, technology didn’t stand a chance against the Queen of Lakes. The second factor is human action in times of crisis.”
Russell said she never set out to write a play on the Edmund Fitzgerald. When a friend made the suggestion based on the approaching anniversary, she was preoccupied with other projects and hardly eager to take on a new one. Still, once presented with the idea, she couldn’t get it out of her head.
“There’s an odd dialectic surrounding the incident,” she said. “On one hand, there’s the argument that it was a matter of fate that the ship happened onto that storm. On the other hand, there are those who question why that ship was anywhere near that storm in the first place. I get angry thinking about how unprotected those guys were.”
The debate and mystery surrounding the Fitzgerald is well documented. Russell scoured many books and articles during the course of her research. She and members of the cast also ventured aboard the Lee A. Tregurtha, a freighter that frequently docks in Marquette to take on a load of iron ore pellets.
The boat’s captain, Jim Nuzzo of the Interlake Steamship Company, served as a consultant on Holdin’ Our Own. Nuzzo and a Fitzgerald crew member were classmates at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy.
“I like the perspective of the script because it personalizes the tragedy and the individual trauma as it developed,” he said. “I think it’s an honorable attempt to memorialize the individuals rather than glamorize the sinking.”
Russell said Nuzzo contributed a great deal to the authenticity and accuracy of the script. He helped establish what the crew faced given their positions and the weather conditions. He also offered insight on the unique nuances of pilot-house dialogue.
In an effort to obtain photos or other information that would be useful in developing the characters, Russell attempted to contact members of the victims’ families.
“I wanted to portray the crew members as accurately as possible,” she said. “But the families felt differently. It was frustrating, yet I can understand their perspective. The characters come with whatever information I have to go on. The more I learned about them, the more heartbreaking it became.”
The resulting production – a combination of historical accuracy and artistic license – features a cast of 14. Eleven compose a representational group aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald. The remaining three are on the Anderson, the boat in closest proximity to the Fitzgerald on that fateful evening.
“On the surface, you had a storm, a driven captain, and an experienced crew on this flagship vessel of the company; all of these factors combined to make it seem indestructible,” Russell said. “Yet this was a ship with mechanical problems – two radars were out. The Whitefish beacon and light were also out. At some point, you can’t help but look at this and ask about the real explanation for what happened.”
Major disasters often bring about changes in safety regulations, and this event was no exception. Nuzzo said it served as a reality check for the shipping industry in terms of how weather decisions can endanger the safety of those on board. It also resulted in a federal regulation for mandatory survival suits.
There have been countless shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, but the Edmund Fitzgerald has had the most enduring impact. It happened recently enough that many people clearly remember reports of the Nov. 10, 1975 incident. It was also immortalized in the compelling ballad by Gordon Lightfoot.
Russell said it was impossible to research the tragedy without being personally affected.
“During the day, it never lets go of me,” she said. “I look at the lake and think of the crew. I play with my daughter and think of how some of those men wanted nothing more than to see their kids again.”
Despite being haunted by Lake Superior, Russell plans to “write about her until the day I die.” Her work often revolves around the natural surroundings and people of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She wrote and directed Haywire, a musical about a U.P. logging camp that was performed at the Kennedy Center. She also was the creative force behind Beacon on the Rock, a musical about the diverse immigrant groups that settled the region.
Holdin’ Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8-11 in the Forest Roberts Theatre at Northern Michigan University. Matinees are scheduled at 1 p.m. Nov. 11-12. -30-
Prepared by Kristi EvansShelley Russell can be reached at (906)227-1657(w) or 226-9916(h).