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They’re dressed for the drawing room in brocades and bustles, but they’re driving deep into what they keep describing, with such agreeable relish, as “Terra Incognita”: Lands Unknown, if your Latin’s rusty, or maybe (if we’re feeling poetic, and why not?) the Undiscovered Country, as Shakespeare famously names the realms beyond death. Fantastic, then, that the corset-clad, umbrella-packing Victorian lady explorers of Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge—like the play that invents them and launches them inquisitively into an unfolding future—turn out to be exuberantly alive, thrillingly open to the possibilities (and the impossibilities, too) that keep erupting from swaths of jungle and tundra and desert.
If only Arena Stage’s new production felt half as vital, they’d be dancing in the aisles over at the Fichandler. But though the cast is game, and though there’s a boldness about the glowing white bridge spanning that star-strewn chasm yawning at the center of the in-the-round space, the dazzle in Tazewell Thompson’s curiously earthbound staging lives almost entirely in the flights Overmyer’s script keeps taking.
The story and its unlikely shapes, though, come near to being enough: It’s 1888, and Overmyer’s intrepid threesome leaves behind the America of Grover Cleveland and Susan B. Anthony, striking out on a trek that quickly, startlingly, turns out to be more of an exercise in discovery than even these forward-looking creatures had imagined. Unheard-of things—temporally impossible artifacts, like cream-cheese tins and hand-cranked eggbeaters, to say nothing of 20th-century concepts as diverse and dizzying as Cool Whip and the Red Chinese—keep cropping up in their path and in their brains. There are “strange objects in my baggage and strange phrases in my mouth,” one of them marvels, and it soon becomes clear that as Mary, Alex, and Fanny push further into Terra Incognita, they’re pushing into the future—an era as excitingly foreign as any Borneo backcountry and trickier even than the Black Quicksands of Baluchistan.
What to do when the future announces itself? Look askance at it, like Molly Wright Stuart’s cautious, conservative Fanny? Take a good scholarly look at it, like Laiona Michelle’s fastidious, no-nonsense Mary—jaw set, eyes fixed firmly on the horizon? Go all nervous and giddy, as Susan Bennett’s bouncy Alex does every time she encounters something unexpected? You’d better decide now, or at least have a strategy, because what Overmyer’s getting at, playfully, is the idea that even for those of us who don’t bushwhack our way daily into new decades, the future is constantly announcing itself, forever consigning our old certainties to obsolescence and insisting we reimagine ourselves in light of each new announcement. And the enthusiasm, the sheer voracious appetite with which even the most cautious of his adventuresses embraces the notion of discovery is a tonic—and a lesson.
So is the ladies’ language, a mad whirl of arcane and archaic 19th-century locutions colliding constantly with the choicest and chewiest coinings of the 20th: “Astrakhan collar” and “the forlorn and despicable cassava” trade elbows with “cacophonous echolalia” (the noise of a sunset jungle, natch)—then stop stock-still, staggered by the advent of “Mrs. Butterworth” and “I Like Ike.” Fanny, always the stickler for standards, famously announces that when she “introduced croquet to the headhunters at the headwaters of the Putumayo,” she insisted they use only regulation equipment (shrunken heads, presumably, not being cricket for croquet); still, she’s quick enough, once the ladies land firmly in the ’50s, to recognize that “Watusi” isn’t just an outdated name for a Rwandan. There’s alliteration and onomatopoeia, assonance and punning and so on, piled whimsically and winningly on until rhyme-happy Alex is bouncing about, blurting cheerful nonsense about “incorrigible dirigibles” and eventually cashing in on her instincts with a sideline in Burma-Shave jingles.
It can be delightful stuff, all this jocund erudition, and it’s no accident that On the Verge has been a standby on the regional-theater circuit since its 1985 premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage. (Amy McWilliams staged it, and well, for the Keegan Theatre nearly a decade ago; Overmyer, meanwhile, has gone on to greater riches, if not greater glory, as a writer for TV’s Law & Order and suchlike.) So if it seems a trifle enervated at Arena, let’s remember that the space, with its steeply raked seats, isn’t the most intimate; all that intelligent, energetic work happening down on the arena floor might be getting a little diffused. (It was especially rough at the show I saw, with a half-empty house glowering back at the actors across the dark, deep canyon that frames Donald Eastman’s broad, clean causeway of a set.)
Speaking of which: Confining all the action on that diagonal ribbon of white must have seemed like one good way to help a mere three performers fill up the Fichandler, but in practice it just highlights how hard it is to make a show play to all sides of an in-the-round house. With two corners of the stage cut off, and only two of four possible entrances and exits available, On the Verge feels strangely hemmed in—a problem with a play that’s all about boundaries crossed.
Another problem, perhaps, is the fourth performer who pops in from time to time, playing a variety of ancillary characters from Fanny’s sit-at-home husband to an adolescent yeti to a ’50s lounge lizard with particularly unfortunate hair. He’s mostly a gimmick, this shape-shifter, but he’s meant to be an entertaining gimmick, and Tom Beckett is rarely anything but intrusive—especially in his parodically overbroad turns as the dragon lady Madame Nhu and that polyester-clad nightclub proprietor, Nicky Paradise.
Or maybe what’s missing here is something that seemed crucial in the Keegan’s staging back in 1998: A sense of unease. On the Verge comes with one of those significant Victorian-style subtitles, Or, the Geography of Yearning, and it struck me the first time around that Overmyer’s at least a little interested in the idea that for all the thrill of discovery, human nature decrees that we’re never satisfied for long. Two of the women settle comfortably into the 1950s, after all, but the third shoulders her brolly and keeps pushing forward into the future, looking…for what, she’s not quite sure, but entranced by the hints of triumph (and tragedy, too) that keep flitting like shadows through her brain.
If the subtle tang of wrongness that ought to spice that scene seems muted here—or maybe it’s just overwhelmed by all the Vegas garishness Thompson layers onto the Nicky scenes—there is what’s either an intriguing coincidence or an interesting casting choice to add a little frisson. The one performer in the cast who’s not the usual picture of a Victorian lady explorer is the one playing Mary: Michelle is African-American, which means that so is the sturdiest and most self-sufficient of Overmyer’s adventurers, the one who initially balks at the idea of native porters and the one who isn’t satisfied with the illusion of ease that is suburban America at the mid-century. It’s Mary who, at the curtain, pushes on toward new undiscovered countries, head up and shoulders square—lighting out, like Huck, for the territory ahead. That’s not revelatory, exactly, but it’s a nice new angle on a story that’s all about edges. CP