Also see Sarah's review of A Doll's House
But, of course, in David Greig's story, it's not just the birds and the sheep that become part of the native census just before World War II. An irascible Irish shepherd and his curious niece count for much of the drama as well. Set in an ancient pagan chapel, on what may be the eve of destruction for this little world, each character is pushed to the absolute limits of his or her passion and logic. Jason Cannon manages a mythic presence throughout as Robert, one of the two researchers. He seems more of a sensualist in the face of danger than can possibly be good for him: a sudden explosion and an unexpected death leave him in a state of scientific wonder. But these are reveries that somehow absolve him of any charge of foolishness. Scott McMaster is his boyish partner, the protector of the British values, even when the rules of royal and rustics no longer seem to apply.
Outlying Islands gradually becomes the story of John (Mr. McMaster) and how every moment on this doomed hideaway wears down his resolve. That erosion is conducted with subtlety and self-assurance, though there's also plenty of comedy and romance. Through it all, director Philip Boehm seems to push his cast (and us) farther and farther out to sea: the wind howls; the cliff-birds screech; we are continually reminded of the stench; and the hard lives of the two pinched, native humans they've found there.
Meantime, watching Robert and John turn into Laurel & Hardy types is pretty funny: the two film stars happen to be the favorites of the girl on the island (Elizabeth Birkenmeier), who has a beautiful but eerie quality, at once other-worldly and firmly in command of her own future. And Jerry Vogel, as her uncle, is perfectly weather-beaten, combining the whimsical, stereotypical cheapness of the Irish with a frightening bluster.
I think I always have the same reaction to Upstream Theatre and director Boehm: that if almost any other company or person tried to make something out of pure atmospherics and a poetic bunch of oddballs, the results would be little more than a fallen soufflé. But he and playwright Greig keep the tension at a high level throughout, whether their story simmers with sex, or violence, or just the fate of a hatchling bird. Yes, the second act seems to be about 40 minutes too long, but I still can't figure out what I'd live without, in this latest perfect marriage of style and dreams.
Through April 25, 2010 at the Kranzberg performing arts center, one block south of the Fox Theatre, on Grand Ave. For more information call (314) 863-4999 or visit them on-line at www.upstreamtheater.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association
(EMC) Denotes Equity Membership Candidate
** Denotes Member, United Scenic Artists Local 829
*** Denotes Participant, Boeing/Arts & Education Mentoring Program
Photo by Peter Wochniak