Weakened by self-doubt and the elements -- as well as being driven to near despair by a fellow traveler's demise -- British explorer Robert Falcon Scott temporarily interrupts his Antarctic expedition to ask, "When is the point when the whole thing becomes worthless? After one man dies? After two?" Moments later, the specter of Scott's nemesis, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, excoriates the proper Englishman for his inability to make a clear-cut, life-or-death decision. At that moment, Ted Tally's Terra Nova begins to ask questions that loom larger than the specifics of Scott and Amundsen's 1911-12 race to the South Pole: Is it possible to achieve national honor without first ensuring one's self-preservation? Does human feeling have a place in matters of science? And if, as the practical-minded Amundsen suggests, life ceases to be meaningful when people abandon their dreams, why do governments and societies routinely champion the laws of science over the ideals of passion?
Tally, who also wrote the screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs, doesn't expound upon these questions so much as he uses them to underscore the men's ordeal, but the Denver Civic Theatre's well-acted production manages to keep alive the pertinent queries long after the lights dim. Thankfully, director Terry Dodd moves along the two-hour-plus play while effectively mixing flashback scenes with episodes from the Englishmen's ill-fated journey (drawn mostly from Scott's journals and letters to his wife). As performed against an immense backdrop of torn white fabric, ice-like platforms and a beckoning, rear-wall portal of hopeful, sometimes wistful, blue, the 1977 play proves compelling throughout. (Ann Davis designed the setting, which features a couple of cloth/ice "sculptures" that look like snow-encrusted humans waging an eternal struggle for survival.)
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More than anything, though, the production's appeal lies in the many fine performances, which lend dimension to a story that sometimes relies too heavily on the twists and turns of plot. It's difficult to take on a character prone to blindness and self-aggrandizement without being given an adequate chance to reveal his capacity for greatness, but Greg Humphreys more than holds his own in the central role of Scott. The talented performer shows us a man who, though unable to conquer either nature's fury or his own nagging flaws, greets each challenge with courage, determination and no small measure of hope. As Wilson, the group's doctor and occasional father figure, Wade Wood exudes humor and near-primal concern for the others in his party. Brett Aune lends those same qualities, albeit in more youthful, less proportioned measures, to the role of Bowers, a younger man who more than once buoys the group's hopes with his generosity of spirit. As Oates, Augustus Truhn ably shows us that people united in a common pursuit can quickly become mortal enemies, even when their common well-being hinges on mutual cooperation. Kent Burnham locates reservoirs of fortitude, mirth and, most of all, tenacity as Evans, an injured member of the party whose good intentions and strong desires become tragically incapacitating. Joe Marshall is a nettlesome, provocative presence as Amundsen, who, in various guises, shows up all over the place. And while she initially skims the role's surface, Jennifer Stewart gradually engages as Scott's wife, Kathleen, especially during a flashback scene that recounts one of the couple's earliest exchanges.
Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive
Through June 30, 303-595-3800, denvercivic.com
As the play swells to its poignant conclusion, the actors perfectly capture feelings that, up to that point, have proved strangely elusive. Fleeting moments suddenly crystallize, fuzzy motives bring about tragic ends, and the play's message resounds with unmistakable clarity. All in all, the noble effort, much like a respectable production of Hamlet earlier this season, bodes well for the Denver Civic Theatre's future.