All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Naturalists, botanists, zoologists, archeologists, and any number of explorers and adventurers left Britain’s piers from the Georgian to the Victorian periods on scientific expeditions that had the noble intention to expand man’s knowledge of the physical world while tangentially extending Britain’s imperial reach.
The stories of Captain James Cook, Joseph Banks, Lord Elgin, and others excited the imagination and cultivated a taste for the exotic as the results of their forays significantly added to humankind’s understanding of its relation to nature.
Eric Overmyer seizes on this exploratory zeal in his witty play, On The Verge, in which the curious and intrepid seekers of the world’s hidden wonders are a trio of American women, each of whom is an experienced adventurer with enviable anthropological and scientific credentials of her own. The women, one of which is an expert in navigating the jungle while another made her name in the high promontories of challenging mountains, and the third seeks oddities, such as the yeti, she can report about in a tabloids, band together to discover the secrets and treasures of Terra Incognita.
What they find is the future, and particularly the future as it affects women. The 1880s turn quickly into the 1950s and beyond as the women travel through attitudes, mores, social advancements as much as they trek through an unknown terrain. Overmyer is clever in having the women come upon new inventions and conveniences as if they were archeological artifacts that require effort to decipher their use. Egg beaters, called rotators by the women, become a running gag, and a good one.
As the women, who remain in the garb and continue to speak the comparatively formal language of the late 19th century, proceed on their journey, each takes on a distinct character. Alexandra, the veteran of the Himalayas, is somehow attuned to the future and divines words, tunes, and phrases that presage it. Mary, the stalwart leader of the group, is rooted in the rational and has the scientist’s bent to embrace the new and unusual even before she realizes what it all symbolizes. Fanny, though she writes for newspapers that peddle sensation while Mary writes for an erudite geographical journal, is the most conservative and unimpressed. She is shocked by what she learns is to be and disapproves morally to much of what the future holds.
Overmyer controls his metaphor well. On a literal and fantastic level, “On The Verge” remains interesting, engaging, and amusing. Overmyer’s material is tricky and fraught with sections that can become ponderous or explode, like mines, is an actress’s face. Kittson O’Neill’s production of “On The Verge” for Hedgerow Theatre is anything but ponderous. It remains a clear delight from the time the women convene and exchange a kind of one-line check list to insure their gear, from pith helmets to umbrellas, is complete and on to the more fanciful sequences when the women encounter the wonders they came to Terra Incognita (the land of the unknown) to seek.
Artfully aided by Penelope Reed, Jennifer Summerfield, Maryruth Stine, and Brock D. Vickers, O’Neill endows Overmyer’s play with the right blend of intensity and humor. Her production shows “On The Verge” to be a play that withstands, and even merits, revival. The Hedgerow staging is the deepest and most intelligent rendering of Overmyer’s work I’ve seen, the play being richer and more cunning than I remember it from the spate of productions it received 20 years back.
O’Neill takes care with the substance of “On The Verge.” She lets Overmyer’s conceit about time play out slowly and reveal itself in easy doses that let us enjoy both present tense, when the women begin to become confused about their unusual discoveries and perceptions, and future tense, when two of the women revel in new-found freedom and modern inventions while their fellow explorer finds the 20th century and its advances decidedly distasteful.
Everything coalesces perfectly in O’Neill’s concept. Her cast is uniformly terrific, with Penelope Reed giving an especially disciplined and compelling performance as Mary and Brock Vickers having oodles of fun playing a variety of parts ranging from a mysterious female Chinese clairvoyant that Overmyer naughtily names Madame Nhu, to the yeti Constance Case smartly dresses is fur that looks like shreds of confetti and that neatly matches Aaron Cromie’s creative set.
Cromie has crafted what looks like a snowy mountain from large, raggedly cut pieces of crinkled paper. Jared Reed uses the white of Cromie’s set to create various textures and moods with his lighting. Meanwhile, Cromie’s well-conceived background takes on a lot of uses, from atmospheric background to camouflage for Vickers’s several entrances. Tree stumps serve as tables, chairs, and a platform for Vickers’s yeti to loom large. Best of all, they are all graced by Dalíesque clocks that foreshadow Overmyer’s march of time. The work of O’Neill, Cromie, Case, Jared Reed, and the cast combine to give Hedgerow one of the cleanest and most admirable productions of its history. Everything about this “On The Verge” is crisp and fitting for the drama of the moment. Invention meshes with intelligence to being Overmyer’s work forward in an enlightening and entertaining fashion. Even when Overmyer’s script seems to be extending itself beyond need, O’Neill’s “On The Verge” remains fresh and holds your interest and attention.
Overmyer is canny about women and their evolving role in society. When Mary, Alexandra, and Fanny embark on their expedition in the 1880s, it is almost an anomaly for women to venture forth into the exotic unknown. While there are some famous women explorers and pioneers, such as the early 18th century botanist and entomologist, Maria Sibyila Merian, and her daughter, Dorothea, who did important seminal work on butterflies among other natural topics, it is rare to find women included as practicing members of London’s Royal Societies, Paris’s L’Academie Française, Germany’s Göttingen Universität, or America’s Smithsonian Institution before the 20th century.
Mary, Alexandra, and Fanny immediately impress that they are well-versed in their scholarly fields and ready for all that comes. They prove it in early scenes when they face everything from delaying brush to menacing crocodiles. Like the modern-day McGyver, one women or another has a solution for any situation, and they proceed, Fanny trying to persuade her cohorts about the convenience of trousers to get through the density of Terra Incognita.
Incognita does not last forever. The women become conversant about many things during their journey. O’Neill and company measure Overmyer’s surprises well, so you share with them their wonder at hearing songs, including some Fanny intuits, on a radio, and experience genuine amusement at watching them figure out what an egg beater, an item they originally consider as an artifact from the past, might do.
The women’s revelations parallel the history of women, women’s tools, and women’s rights in a way that remains constantly clever and never becomes cloying or precious. It is almost quaint to note that when Mary and her colleagues begin their quest, women in Britain and America cannot vote, let alone play leadership roles of which all three of Overmyer’s characters seem capable.
Accomplished Hedgerow executive director, Penelope Reed, surpasses her best recent work with her portrayal of Mary, a women with scientific and literary prowess to match her courage and instincts, and the acknowledged leader of the explorers.
Reed anchors O’Neill’s production with her thoughtful, classically-styled take on Mary. This is a women who values her experience, the scientific method, and her association with a publication tantamount to Gilbert Grosvenor’s National Geographic. Mary is spirited but unruffled, excited by discovery but gifted with perspective. She may be as confused as her companions about something they encounter, especially if it is something from a time decades beyond 1880, but her curiosity retains its wonder, and her intellect allows her to be enthusiastic while remaining professional.
Using her beautifully trained voice, Reed delivers whatever philosophy Overmyer includes in his text, and does it with clarity and intensity. Although Alexandra has most of the comic lines, Reed finds Mary’s humor and presents it brightly.
Jennifer Summerfield, who had a wonderful 2014 playing characters created by Brian Friel, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, continues her skein of fine performances as the cautious, critical Fanny.
At first, Fanny seems the most forthrightly adventurous. She is out to find stories to excite the readers of a tabloid and wants to encounter the dangerous and unusual to generate good copy. Summerfield plays Fanny as a figure with unfailing common sense and a human feeling that goes beyond the more businesslike demeanors of Mary and Alexandra. Fanny is the only married member of the trio, and Summerfield is shrewd at playing Fanny’s dismay at being absent from her husband, Grover, but also displays the fierce independence of a woman who wants to learn and report on the wider world.
Overmyer turns tables a bit on Fanny. Her sensible nature makes Fanny seem the most open of the explorers at first. As time and history progresses, and woman use what Fanny would consider coarser language, take up wearing trousers, and smoking cigarettes, she retreats into an American version of Victorian morality and can come across as quite self-righteous and disapproving. Alexandra, ready to try anything, can really get on Fanny’s nerves. Fanny is even more confused, but just as rigid, when Mary bends to the future and accepts new objects and more modern ideas.
Maryruth Stine veers away from using her large eyes and broad smile to convey a character and gives Alexandra dimension of a kind the actress has not mustered previously.
Her work in “On The Verge” is a breakthrough performance for Stine who shows the complete nature of her talent. Alexandra can be ebullient and burst into a jingle with little or no provocation, but Stine keeps the character under control. She knows when to break out that smile and not to depend on it for every nuance.
Alexandra is the biggest wild card among the characters. She relishes her place in the future and embraces the new with her entire being.
Mary and Fanny may take calculated risks. Alexandra takes chances. Mary will consider a situation. Fanny will judge it within her reason. Alexandra will give in unabashedly to every experience. She may wonder at times why words, names, and ideas for which she has no immediate reference pop into her head with regularity, but she is always ready to accept the evolving language she divines and to roll with the times and situations in which she finds herself.
Stine captures Alexandra’s exuberance and occasional abandon while defining her as a woman who knows her business and is experienced in dealing with the new and yet to examined. In time, her Alexandra gets he wish because as “On The Verge” advances in time, most women wear pants on a regular basis.
Brock D. Vickers plays several characters and moves from having fun with his more colorful roles to being completely serious when a part calls for it.
Vickers, remarkable as the sinister murderer in “Communicating Doors” earlier this season, and nicely straightforward as Rosencrantz in Hedgerow’s “Hamlet,” adds to the impression he’s made as an actor who can do everything and look effortless doing it with his set of performances in “On The Verge.”
Even though you knows he’s wearing a mask and gloves as the Chinese seeress, Madame Nhu, his appearance on stage as a character in regular dress sans makeup one split second later is astounding. Vickers and O’Neill must have worked assiduously on timing to get all of Vickers’s entrances and exits so perfect.
While displaying leading man grace on some standard characters, Vickers, usually emerging from an opening in Cromie’s crinkled paper set, has obvious fun playing a friendly yeti and gorge troll. He blends comedy and seriousness seamlessly while giving full dimension to the various parts he assays.
Constance Case does a wonderful job with all the costumes, dressing the women is their exploring khakis and pith helmets and Vickers in white suits and yeti fur, but she is especially creative when she gets to dress Vickers in what amounts to various disguises. Just putting on Case’s costumes gives one inspiration to make the most of a character. The yeti’s stringy fur is especially inspiring.
Patrick Lamborn’s sound design matches Cromie’s set, Reed’s lighting, and Case’s costumes in cleverness. Kittson O’Neill, already admired as an actress in Lantern’s “Arcadia” and as an administrator for InterAct, has shown she is an able and thorough director. Hedgerow’s “On The Verge” is taut, atmospheric, well paced, and superbly textured. O’Neill has established the right tone and intensity for every moment of the show. She’s found the humor in the script and had her cast play it without pushing lines or milking laughs. She’s also found Overmyer’s overriding point about the evolution of women in the last century and a quarter. “On The Verge” has never been more satisfying. I look forward to seeing more direction from O’Neill.
“On the Verge” runs through Sunday, February 8, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, January 21. Tickets range from $34 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.