After grueling weeks of unprecedented snowfall and severe cold, it seemed only fitting to see Flat Earth Theatre’s powerful production of Ted Tally’s gripping,historical, two-act drama, “Terra Nova,” the story of English explorer, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s, 1908 ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.
You’ll perhaps recognize playwright-screenwriter Tally for his other works, namely multi-award winner, “The Silence of the Lambs,” and also “The Juror,” “All The Pretty Horses,” “Red Dragon,” and White Palace”. In 1977, he wrote “Terra Nova,” based on Capt. Scott’s diaries and historic documents, as his master’s thesis at Yale School of Drama. He revised it later. After its New York appearance in 1984, the play won an Obie Award and others.
As sound designer Brad Smith’s howling winds rushed through the Arsenal Center for the Arts‘ cozy Black Box Theatre in Watertown, sending a simulated chill through the air, we cringed, watching this intrepid ensemble trudge through miles of Antarctic frigidity on foot.
Tally takes effective, haunting, dramatic license in the play, switching from the relentlessly damned expedition to flashbacks, and Scott’s subconscious, where he envisions his Norwegian competitor, Roald Amundsen, (notably portrayed by Samuel Frank), taunting, yet advising him he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of beating him to the South Pole.
Portraying the celebrated explorer Scott, Chris Chiampa superbly runs the emotional gamut, from fearlessness, caring, loving, determined, to utterly defeated. Scott has an intense sense of patriotism, love of animals, and compassion for his fellow man. He flashes back to tender scenes with his wife, Kathleen Bruce, whom he married in 1908, and had a son, Peter, who was 2 years old when Scott died. As Kathleen, Kamela Dolinova is a loving, gracious, supportive, serene influence on Scott and the audience.
Tally shifts back and forth in time as Scott writes his progress in his journal. We time travel, too, with Scott as he’s celebrated in 1904, after his first expedition to Antarctica, is married in 1908, and arranged another expedition, hoping to be the first to reach the South Pole.
Scott and his faithful, hardy crew - Wilson (James Hayward), Bowers (Matt Arnold), Oates (Kevin Kordis) and Evans (Robin Gabrielli) trudged onward, inspired by their warm camaraderie, despite physical setbacks, only to become devastated after realizing Amundsen got there first, claimed it, and raised the Norwegian flag, on Dec. 14, 1911.
Scott and his ailing crew arrived there Jan. 16, 1912, then had to return to their base, disheartened and defeated. Weary, frostbitten, some with gangrenous hands and feet, lacking supplies, while combatting severe conditions, the men died along the way, but Scott managed to leave a final entry in his journal on March 17, instructing his wife on how to raise their son, Peter.
Niki DeSimini’s set was minimalist on the small stage area, allowing theatergoers to focus on the actors and action. A large, white illuminated background panel created light patterns, including rainbow-hued southern lights.
Regrettably, Flat Earth’s production ran only one week, Feb. 20-28. Director Jake Scaltreto, his exemplary cast and crew outdid themselves in recreating a tragic moment in time and the era of extraordinary exploration. Besides producing a gut-wrenching, fascinating play, this troupe stamped a haunting impression on audiences, and created a provocative, educational vehicle that should be performed in high schools and colleges.
And, yes, “Terra Nova” made me stop whining about our winter woes!