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STAGE REVIEW : 'Terra Nova' Explores Doomed Trek

December 08, 1987|MARK CHALON SMITH

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.

--Robert Falcon Scott, the first Englishman to reach the South Pole.

Those brave but fatalistic words were among the last that Scott wrote in the winter of 1912, just hours before he and his five-man expedition froze to death on the swirling, icy Antarctic tundra.

A man of letters, Scott dutifully kept a record of the exploration that began as an adventure--part scientific experiment, part patriotic race against a Norwegian team--but ended in disaster. His journal entries made headlines that saddened Britain and, much later, became the foundation for Ted Tally's "Terra Nova," now tautly staged at Fullerton College.

The drama takes us directly onto the harsh terrain where Scott and his men challenge the elements while trying to maintain their enthusiasm as they realize the Norwegians are winning the contest. Scott Neilsen's naked, bright white set with its abstract representations of jutting ice floes does much to convey the environment's uncompromising bleakness.

When the British expedition finally reaches the South Pole, it is met by the Norwegian flag, planted three days earlier. The trip back is a nightmare of disappointment and increasingly treacherous weather. It's a spiritual and physical disintegration as Scott (played by Don W. Mercer) flashes back to tender and bittersweet times with his wife (Lydia Dunn), all the while seeing his imminent death.

Unyieldingly pensive, "Terra Nova" requires a sure directorial hand and, for the most part, gets it here. Except for the first scene, which is formless and plodding, directors Bob Jensen and Jay Hamacek keep the production reasonably tight and unsentimental. The mournful encampment scenes are especially evocative.

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly William Cole, Nick Boicourt, Steve Spehar and Carmen Torzon as Scott's men. Each makes palpable their character's own visceral reactions to the collapsing mission. As Scott's wife, Lydia Dunn projects both sweetness and courage. Michael Glenning's Amundsen, the leader of the Norwegian team, is a dominating presence, but Glenning should work on his Nordic accent, which is so thick it leaves some of his lines unintelligible.

Ironically, the weakest performance comes from Mercer, who is too studied, too actorly. His Scott is so overwrought and sensitive, it's a wonder he can lead any trek where lives are at stake. His obsessive need to prove himself--which leads directly to his rock-hard heroism--is only hinted at, leaving the man more a cipher than a symbol of the pioneering spirit. To his credit, Mercer does make some progress by late in the second act, and his last scene is powerful.

The production features two student casts that perform on alternating nights. The cast reviewed here performs tonight, Thursday and Saturday.

"TERRA NOVA"

A Fullerton College production of Ted Tally's play. Directed by Bob Jensen and Jay Hamacek. With Don W. Mercer, Michael Glenning, Lydia Dunn, William Cole, Nick Boicourt, Steve Spehar and Carmen Torzon. Sets and lighting by Scott Nielsen. Costumes by Gary Krinke. Plays tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the campus' Studio Theatre at 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Tickets: $6, $5. Information: (714) 871-8101.

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