Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

On the Verge

Molly Wright Stuart, Laiona Michelle and Susan Bennett
On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning, the current production at Washington's Arena Stage, is a play devoted to the love of language. Playwright Eric Overmyer rhapsodizes, plays with malapropisms, and makes words turn somersaults in his 1985 play, but what he's trying to say remains obscure.

On the Verge follows three "lady explorers" of the Victorian era as they enter what they call Terra Incognita, an uncharted land of endless sand beaches, "jeweled jungles," and sheer cliffs of ice. Along the way, supremely confident Mary (Laiona Michelle), prim Fanny (Molly Wright Stuart), and outspoken Alexandra (Susan Bennett) stumble onto glimpses of a civilization they don't understand: a hand-powered rotor device (otherwise known as an eggbeater), a button printed with an indecipherable message, and newspaper clippings from the far future.

Language is the primary way the women cope with their environment, and the breakdown of verbal communication is an early symptom of the difficulties they face. Alex, specifically, has a way of speaking the wrong word, then correcting herself ("I'm delicious. Delirious, not delicious").

Overmyer seems to be using time travel as a metaphor for the changing roles of American women, as the explorers continually face the challenge of what to keep from their own time and what changes to make. One primary example is whether these intrepid women should wear trousers instead of dresses; Alex is a radical who considers slacks far more practical for exploring the unknown than long, bulky skirts and elaborate petticoats, but Mary defends petticoats as a buoyancy device in case of quicksand or other external threats. (Costume designer Carrie Robbins begins with elaborate Victorian gowns for the women, who transition into more neutral, less flashy traveling clothes until they reach their, apparently ultimate, destination.)

Along the way, the women encounter a succession of unusual men (all played by Tom Beckett), including a beatnik troll guarding a bridge, a rather cute Yeti, and a white-suited Latin American man who answers to "Mr. Coffee."

All the performers do well by their tongue-twisting characters, and director Tazewell Thompson keeps the action flowing with minimal interruptions. The program also notes the voice presence of respected actor Christopher Plummer, but apparently this is no longer being used.

Donald Eastman's scenic design offers a visible metaphor for the precarious nature of the women's journey: a narrow diagonal bridge connecting two corners of the Fichandler Stage, with a deep drop on either side. Robert Wierzel's expansive lighting design ranges from pinpoint stars in the abyss surrounding the bridge to washes of color representing the changing climates of Terra Incognita.

Overmyer's universe is undeniably enjoyable for a visit, but whether it represents anything more than cleverness and some fairly easy laughs (mostly about Fanny's assimilation into a congenial time period) is open to question.

Arena Stage
On the Verge
May 5th —June 11th
By Eric Overmyer
Mary: Laiona Michelle
Fanny: Molly Wright Stuart
Alex: Susan Bennett
Alphonse, Grover, Yeti, Gorge Troll, Mr. Coffee, Madame Nhu, Gus, Nicky Paradise: Tom Beckett
Directed by Tazewell Thompson, in association with Westport County Playhouse, Westport, Conn.
Fichandler Theater, Arena Stage, Sixth and Maine avenues S.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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