Talkin' Broadway HomePast ColumnsAbout





Off Broadway


Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
Aidan Dooley
Photo courtesy of the Irish Repertory Theatre

You probably wouldn’t anticipate an escape from the stifling heat of July in New York would entail a trip to the Irish Repertory Theatre. But if ice and snow are all you’re craving this summer, it might be the best way to go: The company’s current production of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, provides a number of chilly gushes of fresh air, but will leave you with a suitably warm feeling afterwards.

That’s not a bad achievement with regard to Tom Crean, a man who’s been mostly forgotten by history, and whose most significant doings are inextricably tied up with the names of others. But after watching this harrowing and humorous show about Crean, which Aidan Dooley has written and performs, you’ll find it impossible to forget the irascible Irishman who survived two unsuccessful expeditions to reach the South Pole in the early years of the 20th century.

Dooley generally focuses on one in each act of the two-hour show. Crean’s first trek, which began in 1911, got him within 150 miles of the Pole, when he was ordered by his captain to turn back; he and the two men accompanying him got lost on the return voyage, and only barely made it back to their settlement, while the five others who continued on were not so lucky. The second attempt, during the early years of World War I, resulted in the destruction of the group’s ship, the Endurance, and an agonizing boat trip that culminated in a marathon cross of the mountainous island South Georgia.

The tales themselves burst with the kind of heroism and inventiveness you’d expect of a hard-boiled survivor saga, and are replete with the tiny losses and victories typical of such stories: There are recurring themes of cliffs and unexpected flying that underscore the less-considered dangers of exploring the world’s last true frontier, as well as stomach-crunching anecdotes about the foods that sustained Crean and his various cohorts that make the gourmet insect offerings frequently seen on the TV series Survivor look tame.

But it’s less the specifics than Dooley himself that gives the show its satisfying bite. He presents Crean as both likeable and somewhat off-putting, an innately approachable, even friendly chap who’ll talk your ear off about subjects that he knows will leave you squirming in your seat. This goes a long way toward filling in gaps in Dooley’s writing, which present Crean as little more than man whose life really was his work - the personality he presents gives us insights into this brash, unsettling go-getter that recitations of facts alone cannot.

He gives us the means to understand the psychology behind Crean’s lying about his age to join the Royal Navy, while summoning up the authority needed to convince us of the proper Antarctic fashion ensemble. (For the record, it comprises layers, but not too many lest you sweat, topped with a coating of Burberry to protect from the wind.) Even more importantly, he’s engaging enough to command your attention through a series of stories no theatrical set designer could help him illustrate.

For that matter, there’s not one credited (only Brian Nason is, for lights) - Dooley must create everything himself in real time. He does admirably well, definitely capturing the horrors of the loneliness of being lost at the bottom of the Earth, though none of the human characters is ever developed as well as Antarctica itself, which seems intent on swallowing all intruders whole. If this gives a certain sense of sameness to the evening, it’s far from enough to totally cool you off toward Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer - stories of triumph against the severest of the elements this compelling just can’t leave your heart completely frozen.


Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
Through September 9
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street
TICKETS can be purchased by calling The Irish Repertory Theatre Box Office at 212.727.2737