On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning

Circle Theatre

Eric Overmyer’s 1985 play is a curious mix of gung-ho adventure, verbal acrobatics, New Age pronouncements about space and time, and cloying nostalgia for the 1950s. Circle Theatre also bills this time-traveling work as “joyfully feminist”–which it certainly is not, even though all three protagonists are women.

As On the Verge opens it’s 1888, and the three American adventurers set off for “Terra Incognita,” clad delightfully in gowns and pith helmets (by costume designer Marisa Davis). Though each has braved alone such unknown territory as the Himalayas and the wilds of Africa, this is the first time they’ve traveled together and with people other than local guides. Fanny (a wistful Katie Johnston) is the romantic: she’s brought along a full tea set and a blond wig crowned by a tiara. The bubbly Alex (Kelly Schumann) is the youngest, carrying a Kodak camera and wearing shockingly modern trousers beneath her skirts. Of the three, only the intellectual Mary (a nice, wry turn by Jenni Fontana) seems to be exploring for exploration’s sake–she’s left plenty of room in her pack for specimens.

There actually were Victorian “lady explorers,” and a historical look at those pioneers might have made an excellent feminist play. But Overmyer and director Greg Kolack give these women a contemporary feeling from the start. Too modern and unrestrained for 1888, they’re nevertheless too conservative for 1985, with their ideas about a woman’s place in the world: Fanny and Mary are both appalled by the trousers idea.

The best bits come early, while the women are hacking their way through the jungle (cleverly imagined by set designer Brett Kashanitz), fighting off various wild beasts with their umbrellas and telling stories about their previous adventures with considerable swagger. Eventually they discover artifacts left behind by the people of this strange new world, among them political buttons and manual eggbeaters. Of course the audience quickly realizes that what they’re finding are bits of 20th-century America–and most of the play’s humor, which is abundant early on, comes from the explorers’ speculations about what these strange things might be. Also entertaining are various eccentric characters they meet–a yeti, a Chinese oracle called (with great political incorrectness) the Dragon Lady, a teenage hand jiver, and others–all played whimsically by Bob Kaercher.

It’s when the protagonists start to explore the terra incognita within themselves that Overmyer’s story loses its compass and the play falters despite Kolack’s swiftly paced, intelligent direction. The women begin channeling strange bits of future flotsam in their dreams and speech, spouting words like “Xerox,” “so long,” “Burma-Shave,” and “TV dinners.” What comes through on psychic channels, it seems, is pop culture. “I have seen the future,” one character says with exasperation, “and it is slang.”

This new information starts to change the way the women see themselves, introducing new feelings and potential career opportunities. At this point Overmyer’s play could have become deeper and more satisfying–his courageous characters could have taken some emotional risks instead of just physical ones. Instead he moves from entertaining adventure story to pop-culture pabulum.

What started as a play about the companionship of strong women in a frightening world becomes, oddly, a quest to meet Eisenhower, whom the three decide is some “grand poobah”–as if American women of 1888 would never have heard of presidents. In fact these otherwise remarkable women seem to have no interest in politics–they never mention, for instance, that women of their era couldn’t vote, even though the suffrage movement was vibrant by 1888, or ask about the rights of women in the future. (Yet by 1872 radical suffragette Victoria Woodhull was running for president; the 1870s and 1880s saw an explosion of women’s colleges; both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were on the lecture circuit; and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was advocating female citizenship as well as an end to legal alcohol. None of these developments is mentioned in the play.)

By the time the women land firmly at Woody’s Esso station circa 1955, all pretense to freshness has vanished. Why 1955? If the play were truly a feminist work, Overmyer would have dropped the women into 1945 to meet Rosie the Riveter or 1969 to explore free love. Instead he puts them in a temporal and spatial oasis–they land in the middle of nowhere, probably off Route 66 in the Nevada desert–devoid of political context and drowning in pop references. There’s no McCarthy, no Red scare, no indication from the playwright that perhaps 1955 (and 1985, to say nothing of 2002) is perhaps just as conservative as the cloistered Victorian era.

Instead the women find Cool Whip, which enraptures them. Alex dons denim clam diggers and discovers rock ‘n’ roll; Fanny gets married; and the practical Mary discovers her hedonistic side in the casinos. The three actors, who at first offer winning portrayals of resourceful women, must suddenly become sitcom characters. Their forced sunniness is a sharp contrast to the first act’s more subtle, knowing performances.

At this point Overmyer reveals his inner television writer (he’s written for such shows as St. Elsewhere and Law & Order), and for the balance of the play’s three hours subjects us to practiced make ’em laugh, make ’em cry manipulation. One character, for example, bravely takes her leave of the other two to head off into a field of stars and the unknown future. But before she goes, the three of them engage in one last eggbeater ritual, whooping it up as they’ve done so many times before.

Certainly theater doesn’t need to be deep or serious to be worthwhile–entertainment is often enough. But On the Verge is an odd choice for Circle, which usually produces plays that are all three. For all Overmyer’s amusing verbal tricks–his puns, malapropisms, and double entendres–we never get a strong sense of what he wants to say. Or perhaps that’s the point of the tricks. And though the Circle folks make a valiant effort, they simply cannot break through the play’s wilderness of words. By the end, audience members may feel they themselves are trapped in a bog, lions all around, unable to escape.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.