Dallas — Eric Overmyer’s play On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning hasn’t been staged professionally in Dallas in more than 30 years. It’s a lively comedy of ideas, in which three Victorian lady explorers set out alone and encounter a multitude of magical and exciting situations. Susan Sargeant, Artistic Director at WingSpan Theatre, finds metaphorical aptness in these explorers, whose intrepidness and ingenuity quash the notion that they represent a weaker sex. Sargeant believes that the time is right for a return of these heroines to a Dallas stage.
Overmyer, whose acclaimed plays were produced off-Broadway and regionally in the 1980s and 1990s, transitioned to writing for and/or production television shows, with credits that include St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, The Wire, New Amsterdam, Bosch, Treme, and The Man in the High Castle.
Richard Bailey had an email conversation with Sargeant about this play, which opens Friday, Oct. 5 and runs through Oct. 20 at the Bath House Cultural Center.
TheaterJones: On the Verge features three distinctly American women from the Victorian era, who winningly display that era’s enthusiasm for exploration, categorization, and esoteric spiritualism. They bushwhack through dense jungle, wade a swamp, vanquish a crocodile, cross a plank bridge over an icy gorge, and come to a “new frontier.” The dialogue is stylized, spiced with optimism, scientific inquiry, and delightful wordplay. Please tell me about the casting process and how the actors prepared for the fable-like existence of these characters.
Susan Sargeant: On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning is a cast of four actors. It calls for three women, the Victorian explorers, and one male actor who renders eight roles.
The play is demanding on many fronts. The actors needed to possess a capacity for language, musicality, imagination, and there is a physical demand as well. Plus, the play is a comedy, and this also factored into the casting process.
Two of the actors I have directed before: Barrett Nash, who is playing the role of Alexandra, and Marisa Diotalevi, who is playing the role of Mary. It is my first time directing Jennifer Kuenzer, playing the role of Fanny, and Jeff Burleson who renders eight roles. Jennifer, Jeff, Barrett and Marisa checked all the boxes.
A compact literary history of femininity runs through Act One, specifically in the practice of “osmosing” and anthropological journal entries. There’s the association of women with mysticism; the authority of women on the basis of visions and revelations. On a more secular level, there’s a woman’s intuition and affectivity. Also, there’s the woman’s task of civility. Sexuality, too, of course. Generally, that’s all the authority the Western imaginary has allowed women—and it’s a tenuous authority. If our three explorers avoid the pressures of subjugation, perhaps it’s because their journey is imaginative. What do you see as opportunities and challenges for carrying over this work of literary imagination, written in 1985, to an audience today, a group very likely reckoning with fresh arguments reflections about sexual difference?
The three female explorers in On the Verge—Mary, Fanny and Alexandra (Alex)—I find very empowering. The three women were truly rock stars of the Victorian era. The characters are based on real female explorers of the time. These women were proactive in finding a way to create their own destiny and align their body, mind, and spirit. The play resonates with the reminder that all of us embody the ability of rebirth and can shape our own unique humanity.
In Act Two, the explorers find themselves in a 1950s version of the American Dream. Two of them are enchanted by the luxuries of the era—piano bars, Jacuzzis, readymade treats like Cool Whip. The third, citing wanderlust, presses on, presumable deeper into the future. What do you make of the two women who decide to stay? Have they found a place that’s right for them? Or do you suppose the factors of convenience and luxury distract them from taking new ground?
If you consider the fact that the three female explorers are all Victorian women, the 1950s (and beyond) gives each of them a passport to a type of freedom that they have not experienced before. Both Fanny and Alex do stay in the 1950s. However, their choices for staying are different. Fanny is staying because she has fallen in love and found her soul mate. Alex is staying in the 1950s because of a future career opportunity as a singer/songwriter. I imagine both of these women moving forward in real time. Fanny has yearned for a supportive and loving partner and now has the opportunity to build a new kind of life. Alex is an artistic free spirit who will bring her creative gifts into the 1960s and beyond. Mary chooses to continue to blaze the trail and explore her inner map by sojourning solo into the future.
The play is steeped in literary ideas, and is also hilariously funny. It’s not just wordplay; much of the comedy is situational. There’s the aforementioned bushwhacking and swamp wading, plus delightful appearances by denizens of terra incognita. We meet a cannibal who assumes the mannerisms of a person he’s just eaten, a sensitive yeti, and a rock ’n’ roll troll. Presumably, from a design standpoint, these situations can’t all be taken at face value. Please tell me about the process of designing your production, specifically the scenery and costumes. How do you suggest all these changing landscapes of playfulness and wonder?
I wanted to produce and direct the play for several reasons. I love creating a theatrical world and this play lends itself to the flight of imagination. My scenic designer, Nick Brethauer, and I came up with a metaphoric design that captures the elements of travel and time. The production will be at the Bath House Cultural Arts Center and we are incorporating more of the actual theater space.
The other element that is going to be implemented are projected images on the cyc to help establish locations and shifting environments. There are also chapter titles set by the playwright to help denote the world of the play.
The costume design for the play is a major component in making the play soar. Jeff Burleson plays eight roles and each one has a costume to help Jeff take on the skin of the various characters. The women also have several changes to denote change of time (Victorian garb to 1950s, etc.). My costume designer, Barbara C. Cox, and I have had fun with the costume plot. However, there is also the challenge of quick changes and making the magic work backstage.
Incredible transitions between time and place are part of the fun. Please tell me how lighting and sound aid the audience in these transitions.
Lighting (lighting designer: Brooks Powers) and sound (sound/image designer: Lowell Sargeant) are imperative to the storytelling. Along with the aforementioned projected images both light and sound augment and support the audio and visual experience for the audience. The play provides sound effects and music to help link scenes together.
The lighting will not only define location shifts but is also a key component in supporting the characters emotional lives.
WingSpan has recently staged plays by Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, two playwrights whose language is scrupulously shaped, also funny and very moving. Eric Overmyer, playwright for On the Verge, might have garnered similar esteem.
He truncated his theatrical career 30 years ago and is probably better known as a producer of prestige TV. He was a collaborator on two acclaimed HBO series: The Wire and Treme. Did you go digging through the vaults to find this play? Please tell me about your decision to stage On the Verge.
I have had On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning in my consideration pile of plays for many years. As with any play, it is all in the timing. I feel that the play particularly resonates for 2018. Plus the play has not been done in Dallas/Fort Worth professionally for approximately 30 years.
As for Eric Overmyer, he made a significant contribution to the geography of the American Theatre. My thought is that in any career/life there are choices and opportunities that are presented to you. Eric, like our female explorers—Mary, Fanny, and Alex—made a choice and charted a new course.