Play: “Outlying Islands”
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand
Dates: April 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 314-863-4999 or www.upstreamtheater.org
Story: Robert and John are excited about their assignment. The two young ornithologists have been sent by the British government in 1939 to a desolate island off the northern coast of Scotland. Their orders are to tally the number of sheep on the rugged isle as well as observe the local birds, including the elusive Leach’s Petrel, a species that returns to the land only for breeding purposes. This is exciting for Robert, a by-the-book scientist whose only religion is Darwin and who considers people more from an analytical point of view than a moral one. John, on the other hand, embodies his culture’s repressed and structured approach to sexuality and a ‘civilized’ assessment of the world order.
Their research runs up against Kirk, a loutish, disagreeable sort who owns property on the desolate island and his sheltered, shy but naturally beautiful niece Ellen, a young woman who longs for the cinemas of the mainland and the elusive society of the modern world they represent. When Robert and John learn the ominous reason why they were sent to the craggy isle, they struggle both with their roles in the study and their growing attraction to Ellen.
Highlights: David Greig is considered (with David Harrower) one of the two great contemporary Scottish playwrights. Upstream Theater, whose mission is to “move audiences to think,” regularly introduces the works of foreign playwrights to St. Louis audiences, such as this local premiere. As is the custom of Upstream and its artistic director, Philip Boehm, this production is marked by careful attention to detail, meticulous technical support and splendid performances by its cast under Boehm’s loving direction.
Other Info: Unfortunately, the two-act drama’s potential, as hinted at in the beguiling, intriguing and menacing first act, dissipates into an uninvolving and dreadfully dull second half. Boehm’s direction is too deliberate and precious in this case, accentuating a script that is long on poetry but short on conflict and action. While the symbolism of birds, whether soaring majestically above the land or cruelly confined to a tiny nest built in a box in an unpleasant little dwelling that serves as the researcher’s makeshift home, is noble and appealing enough in its comparison with the characters, the lack of energy in this presentation is most unfortunate.
Boehm does elicit well-etched performances by his cast from an artistic standpoint. Jason Cannon convincingly shows us both Robert’s loutish, and even starkly cruel, approach to nature, as well as his mystical attraction to the island’s desolation and beauty. Jerry Vogel deftly handles the role of the crude and innately nasty Kirk, who greedily welcomes the government’s offer to pay for his scrap of “pagan,” hardscrabble land even as he keeps his niece firmly under his stifling command. Vogel also has a small role as the researcher’s superior.
Scott McMaster finely conveys the repressed longings of the romantic John, a man who won’t allow himself to cuss without apologizing directly and who covets the innate beauty of the dutiful niece. As Ellen, Elizabeth Birkenmeier effectively demonstrates the young woman’s aching loneliness and the exhilaration she feels when her own liberation unexpectedly occurs.
Michael Heil’s set design moodily depicts the depressing locale, a combination of drab and gray surroundings for a hovel that serves as the researchers’ living quarters, accentuated by a dilapidated door in constant need of repair. The forlorn set is dutifully accentuated by Steve Carmichael’s subdued lighting and Bonnie Taylor’s collection of squalid boxes, a solitary lamp and a sturdy table. LaLonnie Lehman’s costuming is suitably drab, although it seems odd that Ellen would be dressed in pants beneath her frock, given her uncle’s puritanical domination. Josh Limpert’s sound evokes both the pastoral beauty and stark isolation of the island.
“Outlying Islands” is more effective as an academic exercise than a theatrical adventure, a production whose overly languid pace underlines the work’s weaknesses more than reveals its strengths.
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.