Oct. 12 2011 12:00 AM

Thrilling ‘Terra Nova’ is a true triumph for Riverwalk


In 1990 Aussie band The Church released
a single called “Terra Nova Cain,” which sounds like just the remedy
needed after enduring Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “Terra Nova.”  Despite
how that sounds, it is a high compliment. Among the finest productions
to grace the stage of Riverwalk’s Black Box since its grand opening.
It’s an intense experience that leaves one cold and numb.  

The story is a fictionalized account of
British explorer Robert Scott’s race to the South Pole in 1911. In this
version, Scott (Joseph Baumann) is tortured by his own conscience in
the form of hallucinations of his Norwegian nemesis Roald Amundsen
(Richard Helder), whose team ultimately beat Scott’s to the Pole.

Playwright Ted Tally seems to
editorialize that the famed British stiff upper lip and ideals of
gentlemanly behavior are Scott’s undoing. The play provides much fodder
for debate about the costs of survival. These characters obviously
predate the sage Spock, with his philosophy that “the needs of the one
outweigh the needs of the many.”

posits questions, through recalled conversations between Scott and his
wife, Kathleen (Amanda Whitehead): Where does scientific inquiry end
and the quest for personal glory begin, and is it ethical to put others
at risk for that selfish goal?

Director Jane Falion takes full
advantage of the Black Box space. This feeling of space and movement is
critical for a play that takes place in the endless expanse of the
South Pole. It also heightens the drama to be so close to the cast as
they get weaker and more desperate to survive.

Tim Fox’s lighting design capitalizes on
the high ceilings to effectively recreate the shimmery southern lights.
Paired with Falion’s set design of jagged ice, the scene is as close to
polar as a theater can get.

Kudos also go to the costuming team and
the prop designer Roger Nowland, all of whom have done a fantastic job
of reproducing the feel of the era. That cast members can be so swathed
and yet not show any visible sweat is a true special effect.

Eric Chatfield, as Irishman Bowers, gives a solid supporting performance, mastering and maintaining his brogue throughout.  Whitehead
imbues Kathleen with grace and a fierce independence of thought. She
also gets to rock the nicest wardrobe, her elegant gowns a visual
counterpoint to the drab parkas of the crew.

It is Joe Quick, as crew member Evans,
who is the most mesmerizing character. At first quiet and unobtrusive,
Evans becomes the most pivotal character once it is revealed that he
has hidden a significant injury from the rest of the group. Aided by
the physical transformation provided by makeup artist Susie Perazza,
Quick plays Evans as a determined but doomed everyman, one who simply
wants his 15 minutes of fame.

Knowing ahead of time that the
characters all die is no spoiler. Instead, it excuses us from trying to
guess what will happen and to focus instead on how it happens. The
human toll — to the crew as well as the families they left behind —
creates such an emotional toll on the audience that one might start to
wonder if eating dogs isn’t the more humane option after all.

’Terra Nova’

Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Drive, Lansing

7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, and

8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14 and Saturday, Oct. 15

$12; $10 seniors, students and military personnel.

(517) 482-5700