Fort Worth — “She fell in love here. She found a family here. Maybe I can too.” At the bottom of the earth, a young woman comes back to the place she (and she alone) was born: the legendary McMurdo Station.
She’s looking for her mother—or rather, since her mother disappeared shortly after Dee’s birth in a white-out Antarctic storm, she’s looking for fragments, memories, insight. Even revelation, if she can find it.
Stage West’s regional premiere of Mat Smart’s The Royal Society of Antarctica is about life popping up—rowdy and irrepressible—in the oddest of places. It’s a play about families: our real ones, often broken, and the families (sometimes quirky) we choose along the way.
And its best laughs come from the real-life strangeness of the adventure: playwright Smart spent several months as a “jano” (janitor) at McMurdo. [Read TJ’s Q&A with Smart here; who knew this was a sought-after job?] Smart knows McMurdo’s offbeat social vibe: part frat party, part kindergarten, part wartime “buddy” movie. On “the Ice,” theme parties are a thing, and round-the-clock sunlight creates an odd psychological buzz—plus creative ways of measuring time.
Director Lee Trull nails both the humor and the off-kilter atmosphere, and Stage West’s cast of eight turns in some vibrant ensemble work—fresh, memorable, and full of faces new to this theater. After five minutes we have no trouble remembering who’s who; Smart’s portrait of each character is that vivid. Scientists, researchers, technicians—and the people who make the place run—are there to go all-in on a risky bet: that despite the danger, or because of it, Antarctica will change their lives.
Dee (Grace Montie in a true and heartfelt anchoring performance) takes to the people and place like a penguin. Open, straight-talking and eager, Dee is running from her Dad’s too-sheltering arms, and toward the memory of her wild and fearless mother. As first times away from home go, this one’s a doozy.
“Princess Dee” is adopted right away by a rag-tag group: wry, fatherly technician Tom (Michael Federico), who knew her parents; intense and snarky head “jano” Tim (Drew Wall), obsessed with toilets and McMurdo’s famous biscuits; Ace (Christopher Dontrell Piper), non-PC but hilarious as The Guy Who Can’t Stop Hitting On You; and friendly, sexy, boozy Tamara (Kelly Stewart), a “dining assistant” and bartender who cain’t say no, but kind of wishes she could. The only hold-out is stiff-backed, standoffish Pam (played to the hilt by Stage West head Dana Schultes) who, like Tom, was close to Dee’s parents. That, of course, makes Dee chase her all the harder, hoping Pam knows the answers to her questions.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, Royal Society feels a tad long but is paced cleverly, with plenty of story lines to follow, and so much incident—comic, tragic, even a couple of cliffhangers—that we stay well awake and watching. Somehow, it feels as if Smart has lured us into McMurdo’s funky altered time zone: no cell phones, no cable, and as Dee says, “like, 19 hours in the future, right?” And because we quickly come to care about what happens to Dee and the others, we’re glad to spend the time with them.
Aaron Johansen’s blazing white light design evokes the other-worldliness of the place, and light bounces into our eyes from the all-white set created by N. Ryan McBride and director Trull. Costume designer Aaron Patrick DeClerk focuses on the station’s everyday wear: hooded parkas and face masks remind us this is serious business. But he gets to branch out into whimsical “Royal Ball” getups…and a tasteful assortment of bath towels. Choreographer Kelsey Milbourn invents a snort-able dance move, and sound designer Kellen Voss aurally fills out our sense of the station and the extraordinary Antarctic life around it.
Dee spends her days mopping some of the same rooms as her mom, meeting friends for inedible dinners, sharing drinks, sorting out her friends' new and old love affairs—and absorbing the two “bibles” she has on hand: a well-used Audible recording of James Earl Jones reading the New Testament, and the small notebook diary her mother kept at McMurdo.
Dee meets a charismatic Navy officer, Miller (electric Christopher Lew), who tells her there’s always time to do “what your heart, gut, blood tells you to do.” And she gets to know a smart but awkward “beaker,” the scientist Jake (a gently funny and magnetic Ruben Carrazana). His passion is finding out how algae frozen in the ice for decades can resurrect at the slightest “stream flow” touch of water.
In different ways, and with very different outcomes, both men are telling Dee the same thing: “Let there be life.” With me.
Life can be the sudden green of growing things, the snap of connection between two humans, or a deep breath of air, shared in real time or in the heart with someone we love—or someone we’ve lost. In her first moments in Antarctica Dee, with a freewheeling Millennial mysticism that feels right for this young play, rejoices at how the air feels in her lungs, the air her mother once breathed. Breath and life are pair-bonded in Royal Society, like mothers and children, like penguins and whales on the move, like lovers coming close.
“There’s nothing for anyone down there,” Dee’s father Hank (voiced by Federico) tells her. Hank lost fingers digging for his lost wife in the ice, so we know where he’s coming from. But even as Dee’s journey gets rocky and time gets short, there is something for her there: an awareness of love as a growing thing itself; a re-shaping of what she knows of her mother and father; and a prayer of thanks for all the people who “choose us” as family.
And as Dee says, “It’s enough.”