Pakistan's K2 mountain is the second highest in the world, and it kills climbers: One dies for every four who make the summit. Very few of us can understand what drives those who attempt these summits, deliberately exposing themselves to terror and pain, nor can we know what it feels like to face the huge and indifferent forces of nature — though images of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan give us some sense of it. But I imagine there's a wild exhilaration — some kind of extraordinary affirmation — at the heart of the experience. Patrick Meyers provides a few answers in K2, a grueling ninety-minute drama that shows two men, Harold and Taylor, trapped on a high, icy ledge. They're suffering from the bitter cold. Harold has an ugly injury to his leg. They've lost essential equipment, have very little food and are running out of daylight.
Taylor is all guts and instinct, a district attorney with a jaundiced, racist view of the world. His relationships with women are about nothing but sex and power. Harold is devoted to his wife and child. A one-time hippie, he moved from stoned speculation about the secrets of the universe to a serious career as a nuclear physicist. But his resumé isn't entirely virtuous: Harold helped develop the neutron bomb at Lawrence Livermore — a bomb designed to wipe out all living things in an area while leaving objects and buildings intact.
Since it's still remotely possible that Taylor could succeed in getting off the mountain, Harold urges him to attempt it — supposedly to get help, though both of them know how unlikely that is. He tries argument, yelling, goading, but Taylor is determined not to leave. He refuses to live out the rest of his life knowing he'd left a friend to die, he says. The two bicker, rage at each other and the mountain, even laugh now and then at the absurdity of their predicament. Naturally, there's philosophizing. Harold lost his faith in whatever provisional god he believed in — or at least his sense of an ordered universe — when quantum physics seemed to disprove Einstein, and rediscovered it with the quark.
That's it. Two men in an unforgiving situation, probing the depths of both their own strength and their own powerlessness, coming to understand that only a tooth-gritted determination to hang on in the face of whatever the universe throws at them can provide even the remotest chance of survival. You might expect the play to be static, but it's dramatically well-structured, with far more action than seems possible. The talk is punctuated by Taylor's attempts to climb the sheer ice face above them (an astonishing achievement by set designer Charles Packard) to retrieve a length of rope. During these attempts, Harold's musings have a specific purpose. He's reminding Taylor that he isn't alone, distracting him from fear, creating a soothing wall of sound, the way good doctors talk a kid through a scary procedure. At one point, he describes the birth of his son, an ordeal during which both mother and child almost died, concluding, "Cindy and Eric made it through" — just as Taylor lands safely beside him. And the sometimes abstract talk is grounded by technical passages as the men check their equipment and take stock of their situation. Playwright Meyers knows the climbing world, and director donnie l. betts and his actors have also consulted with experts.
K2 is a daring evening of theater for the Aurora Fox, not because it's a new play (it premiered in 1982) or because the approach is experimental, but because it asks a lot of both actors and audience. We have to be willing to give ourselves over to a bleak and terrifying place and the actors, working in a cramped space, have to give their emotional all. Fortunately, they're up to it. Jude Moran is a passionate, sometimes blubbery, sometimes amazingly brave Taylor, while William Hahn gives Harold dignity, strength and nuance. Director betts keeps the rhythms between them right and true.
In 2008, eleven climbers were killed on K2. One of them, 61-year-old Hugues d'Aubarède, wrote this the night before he died: "I would like everyone to be able to contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers. I am suffering for it, but it's too beautiful. The night will be long but beautiful."