Ocean Ranger voices

Actors recount tragedy in 'Rig,' opening Feb. 14

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on February 11, 2012

Shortly after midnight on Feb. 15, 1982, as a storm whipped at speeds of 90 knots, carrying waves more than 40 feet high, the Ocean Ranger began listing.

The crew radioed its supply ship and the Mobil Oil office in St. John's, asking for a mayday distress signal to be sent out. An hour later, crewmembers took to the water in lifeboats.

Just before 3:30 a.m., the Ocean Ranger sank to the bottom of the ocean. All 84 crew members, 56 of them Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, perished. Among them was Ron Heffernan 28.

Ron and his brother, Ray, both worked on the Ocean Ranger, on opposite shifts. Their sister, Elaine Walters, worked in Mobil's offices on land.

"Eight days before the rig sank, there was a severe list," said St. John's writer Mike Heffernan, a second cousin.

"He had come back on the crew change and said there were serious problems out there and if anything happened of any significance, everyone was going to die. Unfortunately, his brother did."

Mike was quite young when the Ocean Ranger disaster took place, but grew up aware of what had happened to his cousin.

In his late 20s and with a background in history, he said he realized that, outside of a book the families' foundation had done and the royal commission report into the tragedy, there wasn't much that had been written about the Ocean Ranger or the lives of its lost crewmembers.

Mike began interviewing people whose lives were connected with the Ocean Ranger; victim's family members, former rig workers, search and rescue crews, and oil executives among them.

"I interviewed Elaine and that was one moment in the process that I don't know how to transcribe. It was transformative, I guess. I'll always take that interview with me and it was something that I'll never forget, for sure."

Mike's book, "Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster," was published by Creative Books in 2009, as a collection of first-person monologues based on his interviews.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the Ocean Ranger tragedy, the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre and Rising Tide Theatre are presenting "Rig," a play based on Mike's book.

Directed by Charlie Tomlinson, the play stars Pamela Morgan, Andy Jones, Janet Edmonds, Allison Kelly, Ken Butt, Lee Fowlow, Evan Mercer, Colin Furlong, Steve Oates, Paul Rowe and Larry Barry.

The piece was written by Joan Sullivan, who adapted Mike's work for the stage after first reading it when he submitted an excerpt to "Newfoundland Quarterly," of which she's the editor.

"I was struck by the voices in the book because it's this incredibly pure, clear way of talking that's so immediate and honest and often poetic and often really funny, and you couldn't write dialogue like that, because it's how people speak," she explained.

Joan shaped the words into a piece of documentary theatre, taking pieces from Mike's interviews and transcribing them into what are almost monologues. It was the only way to do the work justice on the stage, Joan said.

"These are the words of the people that were most affected by it and it's quite awful, but at the same time, it doesn't push too much," she explained.

"People aren't screeching and bawling and weeping and wailing, they have to assess what happened and they have to move on because ultimately, the play is about life."

Though Mike and Joan's original visions for the play may not quite match, they had both wanted a sparse, streamlined piece of theatre, and that's what "Rig" is.

"Rig" debuted in Trinity as part of Rising Tide's "Seasons in the Bight" in 2010, although Mike wasn't able to see it. He had planned to take in the production when it came to St. John's that September, but the show was cancelled by hurricane Igor. Though he's attended rehearsals, opening night at the Arts and Culture Centre will be his first time seeing the finished play on stage.

Both Mike and Joan hope audiences will leave the theatre with insight, respect and perhaps a different outlook on life. The play may be a difficult theatrical experience, but an important one.

"It's certainly not something you can call enjoyable, but I think it changes you," Mike said of the play.

"I had a lot of sleepless nights writing the book and, to be honest, it still affects me. You never put it away; you never put it on the shelf and say, 'I'm done with that project.' It stays with you. It changed my perception of who I am and how I view the world, and those are kind of clichés, but it's really, really true."

"Rig" is running at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre's Basement Theatre Feb. 14-18. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students and seniors) and can be bought at the Arts and Culture Centre box office, by calling 729-3900, or online at www.artsandculturecentre.com.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury