The second act of ON THE VERGE (OR, THE GEOGRAPHY OF YEARNING) is a fairly nimble meditation on human progress. Its charming verbal pyrotechnics and flashes of comic wit are tinged with intimations of mortality. The problem—and it's not an insignificant one—is the lackluster first act you have to undergo in this hiSTORYstage production to get there.
Eric Overmyer's script follows three female explorers—"sister sojourners" inspired by intrepid 19th-century adventurers such as Gertrude Bell, Mary Kingsley and Isabelle Eberhardt—who arrive on a remote South Pacific island in 1888.
Previously, the robust Mary (Laura Bess Jernigan), the tart, conservative Fanny (Mary Forester) and the free-spirited wordsmith Alex (Whitney Griffin) had separately traveled to the Amazon, the Sahara and the Himalayas "alone"—that is, as single Western women accompanied by small armies of native bearers, porters and guides. But on this trek, the three have decided to join forces and forsake all other company as they confidently stride ashore.
Unfortunately, that conceit—and with it, much of the women's agency—is torpedoed when director Rebecca Blum invents three characters who appear nowhere in Overmyer's script, introducing them before the explorers' first lines of dialogue. At the outset, Blum's trio of "chrononauts," dressed in desert camouflage, cart the women on stage and break their state of suspended animation by adorning them with jewelry—a plot development not found in the original text. The chrononauts keep coming back, voicing chapter titles and bearing branches of jungle flora and other cheap-looking set pieces. Indeed, the women appear to be forging through a less than high-tech simulation of the terrains they discover.
Clumpy blocking, too static for a tale overtly based on travel, adds to early difficulties. And where a regional premiere in the 1990s effectively navigated the wordiness of Overmyer's script, the first act drags here as the women spend as much time talking about traveling as doing it. Any momentum generated peters out in solos where each reads from her journals.
With that many difficulties, it's amazing that the second act achieves what it does as Overmyer's whimsical, fantastical script unfolds. The three women blossom as they foray into the 20th century. After traversing arctic ice fields and forbidden chasms, fending off a baby Yeti and a cannibal from Alsace-Lorraine, they find themselves in 1955, first at an Esso service station, then in a swinging Western casino and lodge. Seth Blum ably plays the proprietors of both, along with other supporting roles.
In that brave new world, the trio is bombarded with technological, cultural and linguistic developments. They repeatedly taste freshly minted words: Ovaltine, electric eyes, doublethink and Cool Whip. As Overmyer grants the forward-thinking women the ability to actually walk forward into the future, two of them find unanticipated homes in adjoining decades.
Thus, a journey fraught with perils finds a rewarding end—in a production that follows suit a bit too closely. Until this show solves the puzzles in its first act, audiences will have to surmount early challenges to find the riches at the end.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tempus fugitives"