On August 10, 2017, two dozen regional actors and musicians premiere The Other Country, a play about Thea Foss (1857-1927), at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma. The production, opening in the 90th year after Foss's death, shows the continuing relevance of her legacy as the founder of the Foss maritime business empire and as a supporter of fellow immigrants to the United States. The Other Country is a an English-language version of Det andre landet, written by Norwegian playwright Kristin Lyhmann (b. 1943) and performed in 2015 at her theater festival in Norway.
At its premiere, The Other Country was the latest of several works inspired by the life of Thea Foss, who came to Tacoma from Norway by way of St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1889. She and her husband Andrew (1855-1937) and their three young children -- Arthur (1885-1964), Wedell (1887-1955), and Lillian (1889-1914) -- moved to a houseboat at the foot of 12th Avenue. Within the year, Thea had begun buying and refurbishing rowboats to rent out for fishing, transportation on Commencement Bay, and the popular pastime of recreational rowing.
Within a decade, Foss Launch Company was a thriving family business that diversified along with Tacoma's waterfront commerce. By Thea's death on June 7, 1927, it had become the dominant tugboat concern on the West Coast, a status it still holds under different ownership and the name Foss Maritime.
Thea Foss was happiest at home with family and the multitudes of business friends and employees who congregated around her ever-present coffee urn. She largely stayed out of spotlight during her lifetime, although her three sons -- Henry Foss (1891-1986) was born in Tacoma -- did arrange a spectacular waterfront festival for her in 1919, to commemorate her founding of the business as well as the end of World War I. Her wider fame came after death. Her funeral was said to be the largest in Tacoma up to that time, and in 1931 Norman Reilly Raine (1894-1971), an acquaintance of Wedell Foss, published the first of his Tugboat Annie stories in the Saturday Evening Post. Loosely based on Thea Foss's waterfront experiences though not on her personality, the stories launched a series of movies, starting with Tugboat Annie in 1933 and continuing with Tugboat Annie Sails Again in 1940 and Captain Tugboat Annie in 1945.
In 2006, Nancy Bourne Haley of Tacoma and filmmaker Lucy Ostrander of Olympia returned to Foss's story and made a documentary, Finding Thea, to reacquaint people with her actual biography. After its U.S. release, Finding Thea was aired in Foss's hometown of Eidsberg and then in 2009 was featured on Norwegian state television. Kristin Lyhmann, a Norwegian playwright specializing in historical dramas, saw it and was intrigued.
Lyhmann wrote and presented her own take on Thea's story. Det andre landet [The Other Country] premiered at her annual outdoor-theater festival in in Skipvet, Norway, close to Foss's hometown of Eidsberg, on August 27, 2015. Haley attended the production along with Foss's great-granddaughter Leslie Foss Johnson, and The Daughters of Norway lodges in Tacoma and Port Townsend, the former founded by Thea Foss and the latter named for her, contributed to the production.
Found in Translation
Marilyn Bennett, a director, actor, and theater professor at the University of Puget Sound, and Suzy Willhoft, artistic director of Found Space Productions, heard about Lyhmann's play and joined forces to create an English-language version. With Haley producing, they began planning and fundraising. "Two years, one translation and many grants later," wrote Rosemary Ponnekanti, "The Other Country, will play inside and outside the Foss Waterway Seaport in August, using artifacts from the museum, including an actual boat for Thea's final sailing" ("Auditions for Thea Foss..."). Lyhmann's daughter, Kari Nelli Groven, and Tacoman Janet Ruud, who first studied Norwegian at Pacific Lutheran University, created the English translation. Debbie Birkey -- an actor and historical re-enactor -- was the musical director and Alex Lewington, a specialist in period clothing, designed the costumes. All five performances -- a patron premiere on August 10, 2017, followed by general performances from August 11 through 13 -- promptly sold out.
The production was videotaped and a short documentary about the project was made. The two films were shown at the Blue Mouse Theater in Tacoma on May 17, 2018 -- Norwegian Constitution Day -- as a benefit for the Tacoma Historical Society.