Arena Liberates' on the Verge'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Arena Liberates' on the Verge'


Byline: Jayne Blanchard, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Remember when we faced the future with eagerness rather than dread?

Eric Overmyer's whimsical 1985 play "On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning" transports us to two points in time when Americans felt on the cusp of a brave new world: the Victorian era and the 1950s. They were particularly potent times to be a woman, constrained by society's roles yet enjoying selective freedoms and eyeing future decades of unprecedented activism and liberation.

In Arena Stage's vibrant production, directed by Tazewell Thompson, "Verge" opens with three richly dressed Victorian women standing in three spotlights. In their furbelow-encrusted, jewel-colored gowns, they resemble porcelain figures displayed in a glass case, but this illusion is dispensed quickly as the women get down to business. They are not ornaments, but lady explorers trailblazers who escape the stern gender roles of their time through perilous travel.

Inspired by actual female explorers Mary Kingsley, Alexandra David-Neel and Fanny Bullock Workman, the characters gather on the threshold of exploring uncharted territory, "Terra Incognita," toasting their journey with lace parasols instead of crossed sabers.

Mary (Laiona Michelle, nimbly capturing the intellectual rigor and romanticism of her character) is the disciplined academic, combining a love of science with a profound joy in discovering the unknown.

Fanny (Molly Wright Stuart, witty and appealing as the avidly feminine Fanny) is an impeccably well-mannered traditionalist. She totes a full tea service and evening gowns in her backpack and counts among her greatest accomplishments bringing croquet to a tribe of headhunters in the wild.

Alex (Susan Bennett) is the youngest and most forward thinking of the trio, already a fan of ditching her petticoats for men's trousers and dreaming up peppy song lyrics like Irving Berlin in a corset. Miss Bennett's performance is distinguished by the brilliant idiosyncratic touches she gives her character her whole body shimmies and dances with every transmission from the future as though she is constantly undergoing a pop-culture mutation.

The three strike out on a landscape at once geographical and interior. They endure jungle heat and muck and fields of glacial ice on their journey. (Donald Eastman's subtly effective set design suggests changes in locale through patterns of light scattered across a white expanse.) They encounter such fanciful archetypal characters as Yeti, a Gorge Troll, a friendly cannibal and a Flying Dutchman-style pilot (all played with rowdy abandon by Tom Beckett).

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