ON THE VERGE OR THE GEOGRAPHY OF YEARNINGBy Eric Overmyer
Directed by Susan Sargeant
Scenic Design – Nick Brethauer
Costume Design – Barbara C. Cox
Lighting Design – Brooks Powers
Stage Manager – Bobby Selah
ASM/Dresser – Katherine ‘Katy’ Higgins
Sound Design/Images/Photography – Lowell Sargeant
Mary – Marisa Diotalevi
Fanny – Jennifer Kuenzer
Alex – Barrett Nash
Man of Many Guises – Jeff Burleson
(Alphonse, Grover, The Yeti, The Gorge Troll, Mr. Coffee, Madame Nhu, Gus and Nicky Paradise)
Reviewed Performance: 10/6/2018
Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Susan Sargeant and her intrepid explorers Mary (Marisa Diotalevi), Fanny (Jennifer Kuenzer), and Alex (Barrett Nash) hack their way into Eric Overmyer’s 1985 play, On The Verge or The Geography of Yearning , encountering cannibals, Yeti, Brando-like bridge trolls, past husbands, oracles of various kinds, and a smarmy night club owner (all played by Jeff Burleson) along the way and lead us to a land of delight. Mr. Overmyer, a noted writer and producer for Homicide: A Life on The Streets, The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and many other highly regarded series, gives us a wordsmith’s delight with this play. Having been written over thirty years ago, it exemplifies a young writer’s obsession with words, with their meaning and their sound. Mr. Overmyer relishes the wordplay with a boyish delight. And the playwright’s delight in his work is infectious. I became giddy with the feast of language being presented in front of me and I was entranced for most of the production.
The set, designed by Nick Brethauer, is a world of platforms and maps dominated by a portal-like projection screen surrounded by huge gears, an Irwin Allen’s Time Tunnel meets Steam Punk sort of affair. The actors climb on the set and crawl under parts of it, and the designer has expanded the small stage of the Bath House into a world of infinite possibilities. It is in this wonderland that we are introduced to Mary, Fanny, and Alex, three Victorian era explorers preparing for an epic expedition into Terra Incognito, where maps are useless, and wonders and terrors lie in wait. The women are named for real, trail-blazing travelers of the time (Mary Kingsley, Fanny Bullock Workman, and Alexandra David Neel respectively), but apart from a few references to their biographies (Mary’s travels in Africa, Fanny’s writing about her travels for tabloids and Alex’s creative life as an opera singer and composer), the reality behind the characters takes second place to the journey on which they are about to embark.
It becomes clear this trek the women have started has taken them into the future. As they hack through brush with their machetes and defend themselves from ravening beasts with their umbrellas, they not only open new territories but open themselves to the swirling pool of time. They begin channeling (‘osmosing’ as Alex puts it) the names of presidents they don’t know and commercials from the future and a brave new world of language which envelops them. Susan Sargeant has paced the proceedings wonderfully. There is no lag time between words and ideas and the result is downright intoxicating.
Ms. Sargeant has also assembled a wonderful cast to lead us to this new land. Marisa Diotalevi gives Mary a spine of steel and confidence as large as the land she sets out explore. Mary handily hacks through the brush while relating anecdotes of the superiority of skirts over pants for exploration. Ms. Diotalevi lets us see the character’s sense of independence born of her travels and the self-assurance of her thoughts and opinions. As the trio continues the journey, Mary proves to be the most adventurous and least tradition-bound of the group. Mary’s smile at the end of the play, facing the endless journey with courage, is a beautiful thing to see.
Fanny was a difficult character for me to warm up to and I realized it was because Jennifer Kuenzer gave such a well-realized performance. Involved in a marriage that seems to be little more than window dressing and, in a profession where she must prove herself to be an equal to men every moment, Fanny is dressed in emotional armor. She is distrustful of the new ideas that seem to flow from her companions and holds onto her opinions with a vise grip. When Fanny’s protection begins to soften, with the help of a ‘whirlpool’, Ms. Kuenzer begins to show the inner light in the character. The future provides the base from which she can build a new, more fulfilling past. If Mary is the brains of this trio of whip-smart women, then Fanny is the heart and Jennifer Kuenzer shows us that with true vulnerability.
And Alex is the wild imagination and creative spirit of the group. If Barret Nash ever wants to give recitations of the alphabet forwards and backwards, I would gladly be part of the audience. I know that I would hear and see things in the alphabet that I have never experienced before. Ms. Nash has an inner light that makes her a delight to watch. There is a child-like wonder that crosses her face when each new revelation from the future rushes through her mind and off the tip of her tongue. When she wishes to describe one of the other women’s behavior and the word ‘square’ flashes into her mind, her face goes from a look of unfamiliarity with the word to a smile in realizing that ‘square’ is a perfectly good way to diss somebody. Alex glows. And it is a testament to the talent of all the actors and director Susan Sargeant that Ms. Nash’s energy does not dominate the proceedings but compliments them. I hope to see all three actresses in the future.
And I hope to see Jeff Burleson in the future as well. In many ways, he has the greatest fun of the evening. Playing a cannibal who has just devoured a dirigible pilot for Alsace-Lorraine to a young, snowball-throwing yeti, to a woman oracle, and on and on and on. Mr. Burleson puts all of himself into each role. If anything, he plays a lady-killer of a night club owner too well, exuding untrustworthiness out of every pore. Also very effective is his performance as a mysterious man Fanny calls ‘Mr. Coffee’, who gently tells Fanny the fate of her left-behind husband. Each time Mr. Burleson takes the stage, his characters are unique and unforgettable. It is a bravura performance of a killer role.
I have no issues with the production, but I do feel that the script gets bogged down with its own cleverness and slows down a little in second act. The decision to use 1955 as a kind of historical plateau and oasis seems odd. Don’t get me wrong, lots of good things were produced in 1955, including myself. But sidelining the trio’s forward journey slows the pace of the show down. And having one of the characters decide to fit in with society to pursue a personal future of limited scope seems odd considering the liberated nature of these women. I also found that the energy of the piece lagged when the three lead characters were not together. I missed the force they radiated.
But the production is top-notch, and the acting is just plain fun. So, gather up your travel gear. Forget the sleeping bag for there is no resting in this journey. Take up your machete and hack your way through Dallas traffic to the mysterious Bath House Cultural Center to see this show. It will be amazing what you will discover.
Presented by Wingspan Theatre Co.
In cooperation with the Bath House Cultural Center
October 4th to October 20th, 2018
Thursday, Friday and Saturday – 8:00PM
Saturday matinee performance – 2:00PM
The Bath House Cultural Center
521 E. Lawther Dr. Dallas, Texas 75218 • White Rock Lake
For more information or reservations
214-675-6573 or www.wingspantheatre.com