I've spent some long evenings in the theater recently, but rarely has the time sailed by as intelligently and harrowingly as it did in Inexpressible Island, a U.S. premiere courtesy of Dallas Theater Center. And we're talking about a situation, however based in reality, that seems like a gimmick manufactured for the stage, as if Irwin Allen had switched from big-budget '70s disaster pics to Broadway: Six Englishmen get separated from their South Pole expedition while in a race to beat a competing Norwegian group and must endure seven months of an Antarctic winter inside a carved-out ice cave.
As much as this production relies on claustrophobia and the tedium of endless nights to generate its dramatic tension, director Preston Lane -- making a most impressive debut as a regular-season DTC captain after steering 1998's A Christmas Carol -- has found and guided a sextet of actors through a whirlwind of anxious psychological nuance. Indeed, there are so many subtle personality details effectively rendered here, you're reminded of those PBS documentaries on insects in which microscopic camerawork transforms anthills and spiderwebs into kingdoms of epic conflict. Much spiritual and intellectual ground is covered in the cramped, scooped-out lair full of stinking feet and ticking time-bomb tempers -- and unfortunately, Canadian playwright David Young, after pirouetting so gracefully across this thin ice for most of the script, hits a wall with a too-literal summation at the close of the third act. But all that has come before cannot possibly fit into this spoon-fed synopsis, and you retain at curtain a tingling sense of the inexpressible place of isolation named in the title.
Young is no stranger to finding the psychological ramifications in unforgiving terrains and unknown cultures -- he has won awards for adapting two novels by Michael Ondaatje (including The English Patient), surely a kindred spirit in these matters, into script form. Young calls Inexpressible Island a "fictionalized" account of a 1912 South Pole adventure gone awry, and that's correct if only because we have no transcripts of recorded conversation inside that frosty hole. The details, however, are all true to the historical record, right down to the names of the participants.
Young, who's gone on a few exotic journeys of his own, insists in interviews that one of the results of meeting nature unmediated -- on its terms rather than yours -- is that it puts you in your place, makes you aware of your ultimate insignificance. That's true in a sense, but what makes Inexpressible Island so compelling is the irony of the outcome. While being surrounded by miles and miles of cold, unforgiving nothingness, these Brits nearly go insane by being confronted with hyperexpanded self-awareness. They have nothing on which to concentrate but their own minds and their own bodies, and the minds and bodies of their comrades. It is by trudging through the vast universe that exists within themselves that these survivors find their triumphant strengths and spoiling weaknesses.
The design team for this Dallas Theater Center production -- Walt Spangler on sets, Robert Perry with lights, Shane Rettig doing sound -- deserves an ovation for finding beauty in generic sheets of reflective white and hissing blasts of cold, steamy air. Those, along with a tent, a few props, and a gorgeously kaleidoscopic nighttime display of lights on the backdrop, are pretty much all that outfit the endless waiting of three officers and three enlisted men. Campbell (Rufus Collins) is the leader, a kind of intellectual fop who revels in crisp diction and references to Plato and Keats. He is the consummate Englishman -- one who believes in the innate superiority of his own good breeding but extends a generous if condescending shoulder-pat of respect to his fellow Anglos, who by dint of national and ethnic pride, he believes, possess a stoicism that can get them through anything. His polar opposite is Abbott (Kelly E. Cole), a rude, crude working-class pessimist whose mercenary instincts shift into overdrive, causing him to flirt with mutiny. Among the witnesses to these two constantly butting heads are Dr. Levick (Mark Boyett), a gentle man of ideas who's less ostentatious about his education than Campbell; and Dickason (James Crawford), a childlike trooper dedicated to his ranking superiors. Together, they count out raisins and sugar cubes, divide up penguin meat and seal blubber, and just generally try to maintain their wits while waiting for the weather to ease up and enable them to escape.
There is much comedy in Inexpressible Island, not the least of which springs from Campbell's exhortations to soldier on, keep spirited, and above all, pay attention to "personal hygiene." Another anchor for the group's sanity is Dr. Levick's long lectures on everything from Egyptology to zoology to art. Little references scattered here and there to the revolution in thought and expression brought by the turn of the century slowly make us aware of what playwright David Young is really fishing for -- the answer to mankind's confusion in an epoch in which belief has supplanted superstition, science has usurped religion, and even artists, those supposed tenders of the secular flame of humanity's soul, are throwing their hands up, reinforcing the confusion rather than resolving or alleviating it.
All of this is as ominous as thunder rumbling in the distance, and then abruptly, at the same time as the mutiny subplot is coming to a climax, David Young yanks back the curtain and shows us the fakery behind the storm: He beats a giant, cheap sheet of tin by forcing Dr. Levick to explicitly recount the new century's scrambled sense of identity in a teary confession of intellectual cowardice. "Books don't have plots, portraits don't look like people," he whines, and we want Campbell to stride over and box his ears and return his attention to the plight at hand.
It's not that David Young's desire to capture 20th-century upheaval doesn't work. For more than two hours, his hints succeed beautifully at mixing with and exacerbating the Antarctic terror. But we were smart enough to catch his intimations and suggestions; stating his intentions so plainly feels like a desperate grope at the end of a long evening of respectful flirtation.
The clunkiness of Dr. Levick's long-winded academic coda notwithstanding, the plight of these six men becomes not just a night of great theater, but a metaphor for the greatness theater can achieve through the demands it places on an audience. Ticketbuyers are trapped with these men for three hours (although they, at least, get two intermissions). They cannot talk or move about very much, but their minds are carried across classes, continents, and centuries to get a wonderful sense of the fragmentation, chaos, and thrilling adventure of the modern and postmodern ages. Most people no longer believe in miracles, many of us find scant comfort in prayer, but the wintry wonder of humankind's scientific and philosophical accomplishments over the last century gives us chill burns. The numbness comes from the monumental awe of it all. Inexpressible Island expresses that secular amazement quite nicely.
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