Dallas — Eric Overmyer's On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning is a vividly imaginative adventure story. The verbal acrobatics are impressive and hilarious. There’s a kitschy but probing existentialism looming over the play. Like the experimental novelists Russell Hoban and William Gibson, Overmyer uses the adventure genre to fashion a metaphysical detective story, in which insight comes out of bravura performance and emotions are the undercurrents of mental complexities.
On the Verge features three American women from the Victorian era, who winningly display that era’s enthusiasm for exploration, categorization, and esoteric spiritualism. In Act One, these "sister sojourners" bushwhack through dense jungle, wade a swamp, cross a plank bridge over an icy gorge, and come to a new frontier. All the while they pick up artifacts from future America (hand-cranked egg beaters, "I Like Ike" buttons) and blurt out slang words they hilariously lack the context for. In Act Two they come to a 1950's-era version of an American paradise, a Las Vegas-type atmosphere with Jacuzzis everywhere, big cars, rock music, and readymade treats like Cool Whip.
Since its first production in 1985, critics have saddled On the Verge with that familiar description of a unique work: brilliant but flawed. For my part—I've only ever read the play prior to seeing WingSpan Theatre Company’s production at the Bath House Cultural Center, the first professional production in Dallas in more than 30 years—the problem has been that the three main characters are almost indistinguishable from one another. Susan Sargeant and her cast have solved this problem. Attentive to the highly stylized manner in which Overmyer stacks his clues—by echo, digression, and return—the company applies gestures and expressions that accrete personal nuances. They add up the little ways in which surprises become experiences and experiences become judgments, and in this way the characters become more and more clear each time a narrative thread reappears. The result is a group of characters you can root for, not just admire as literary inventions—women who are distinct, energetic, and fully invested in the task of exploring terra incognita.
The explorers are Mary (Marisa Diotalevi), Fanny (Jennifer Kuenzer) and Alex (Barrett Nash). In the script, it’s clear that Mary is the leader, although Fanny and Alex are just as intrepid. Fanny is married, then widowed by the expanse of years the sojourners magically travel across. Alex is the youngest. And that's really all there is on the page that distinguishes them. On stage, it's different. Diotalevi's Mary exudes all the enthusiasm of Mungo Park when it comes to harrowing the unknown. She's a terrific storyteller, relating prior adventures in a way that is wondrous and macabre. Mary's anthropological interest in the fertility rites of natives is treated by Diotalevi (subtly in Act One, then transparently in Act Two) as an appealing character detail: a woman of a certain age who chooses her calling over partnership, retains a healthy interest in sex and other bodily pleasures. When Mary emerges from her first experience in a Jacuzzi, she radiates bliss.
Kuenzer portrays Fanny's conservative sensibilities in a way that makes her a cogent but never too prudish foil for Alex's more modern feminist affect. As a reader, I worried that Fanny's decision to stay on in the Vegas-like utopia with her new beau, Nicky Paradise (Jeff Burleson), rather than to track onward, whack the bush in new frontiers of time and space, suggested she'd fallen into a trap of luxury and convenience. But Kuenzer has Fanny react to the shiny new world as though everything on display is an opportunity for fresh ideas and reflections. She hasn't lost her explorer's instinct or the desire for romantic partnership. Standing next to Nicky in her blonde wig, new dress, and white go-go boots, she glows. And part of that is the light off the woman she was back in the jungle, when she thwacked a crocodile to death with an umbrella. She hasn't lost any of her strength.
Initial hints that the women have crossed some cosmic threshold occur through Alex, who catches a bizarre strand of tropical fever, one that causes linguistic paroxysms. All the sudden she's blurting out pop cultural references that are many years ahead of her own lifetime. "Magnificent oaths," Mary calls these utterances. Nash's reaction of surprise, then wonder after each blurt is endearing and very funny. What's more, she mines Alex's weird speech problem for opportunities of character development. Malapropisms become playful alterations, a groovy sort of slang. When Alex announces that she's leaving the explorer's life to write pop songs, the transformation seems inevitable. Here is a young woman whose been discovering her voice all along.
Jeff Burleson renders several roles. He is, in order of appearance: a cannibal who assumes the mannerisms of the person he’s just eaten; a sensitive yeti; a rock ’n’ roll troll; Mr. Coffee, who is probably Death; Madame Nhu, a thoroughly bizarre tarot card reader; Gus, a friendly grease monkey; and Nicky Paradise, owner of a utopian resort. These transformations are seamless. Burleson hits all the notes that make these characters hilariously funny. But he also shows restraint, thus allowing the strangeness of his characters to sink into the imagination of the sojourners, that they may question him and interact in a way that isn't too much like a Vaudeville exchange or, in the other direction, seem too post-modern.
Nick Brethauer’s set design features a terrific platform of world maps and clock gears. Drapes of mosquito netting add to the tropical vibe and also fall rather spectrally, enhancing the play’s ethereal qualities. Lowell Sargeant’s projections and sound design sell the magical transitions from rain forest to icy gorge, from desert gas station to glitzy casino. Barbara Cox has created smart Victorian travel costumes that somehow can be gotten into and out of in a hurry, in order to facilitate the rapid transitions of the women in Act Two. Nash, for example, moves from explorer to surfer girl to leather-clad rocker.
Director Susan Sargeant puts the pedal down with regards to pacing, and the dialogue whizzes by at a screwball pace. This enhances Overmyer’s maximalist style and creates a charged atmosphere with words, an environment that is inventive and mysterious, much like the dimension-shifting floor of terra incognita. In Act One, the action frequently spills off the stage. The explorers go bushwhacking into the wings and behind the audience. I confess to feeling tense anytime it seems audience participation is called upon, but applied here the question “where in the world are they going” is pleasant and suitable. Plus there’s the perk of hearing strange lines called out from all around you. I laughed out loud when I heard the phrase “spider’s blood splashing,” a reference to someone’s fleet machete handling, not because the image is hilarious, but because the randomness of it, coming as it did from behind me unseen, gave me a giddy feeling.
To put it didactically, this is a cosmically inclined pro-feminist play. But didacticism in Overmyer’s style is a diving platform into the inherent mysteries of language, even the most scientific language, because time shifts with past and future tense, and there are vagaries of meaning and intent. Sargeant achieves quite the high wire act; she balances the relatable, heroic aspect of the sister sojourners—characters she’s invested a lot of time in helping to define—and the avant-garde sensibilities that give the play it’s form. The production is bold, intelligent, and a whole lot of fun.