Of Ice and Men

Photo by Henry Dirocco/SCRIt was unsettling walking into a theater last Sunday as ash rained from the sky and with the sky—in all the shades of the grayscale—stretching from horizon to horizon. It's fire season, and this one, deadlier and grander than most, once again reminds us of man's powerlessness in the face of nature—and the hubris of thinking that building in areas prone to fire or landslides or droughts won't eventually cost us.

Humility, hubris and the unyielding power of nature are all parts of Ted Tally's play Terra Nova, currently on South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage. However, this world isn't consumed by fire, but by ice. It's Robert Falcon Scott's doomed 1911-1912 expedition to the South Pole, in which five Brits, driven by nationalism and the hunger for glory and adventure, set forth to plant the first boot on the bottom of the world.

They didn't. They all perished, victims of Scott's lofty—if misguided—belief in the indomitable human spirit. But Scott's letters, written in his last moments of life when he was a mere mile from safety, bear testament to his story. While Scott obviously wants to find the South Pole first for personal glory, he is also a product of his time—an Englishman, proud and manly and possessed of all those proud and manly principles that turned that relatively tiny chunk of earth into a world-straddling empire.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. We meet Scott's wife, Kathleen (Nina Landley)—a sculptor whose presence allows Tally to write a completely unnecessary passage about how discovering a new work of art in a museum is every bit as adventurous as walking 1,000 miles through uncharted, icy terrain (oh, those artists!)—and Roald Amundsen (Preston Maybank), leader of the Norwegian expedition Scott is racing to the pole.

This production, directed by Martin Benson, soars technically. Angela Balogh Calin's icily jagged set design and Michael Roth's outstanding original music and sound design magnificently capture the inhospitable Antarctic. Either SCR jacked up the air conditioning by five degrees or the technical elements chill the blood.

But it's hard to invest in this story because Tally never met a sentence (or a rambling scene) he didn't like and because of some problematic casting choices. Don Reilly's Scott just looks too young to play a 41-year-old military man afraid of growing old. And while I'm no expert on Norway, Mayback's Amundsen, while cutting a dashing figure, sounds Transylvanian and his swarthy complexion looks more Mediterranean than North Sea.

But you forget the wordiness and casting as the play builds to its inevitable tragedy and the once proud, hearty band of adventurers disintegrates as it confronts its awful fate. Yet one man doesn't break: Scott. He remains committed to duty. And there is something noble and heroic and, yes, even manly about the fact that, reaching his breaking point, he doesn't break. That part of Tally's play is a stirring, if poignant, reminder that there is something indefinable in the human character that prevents some of us from quitting or buckling against the most overwhelming of odds. That's the mark of a genuine hero, whether traversing a thousand miles of icy terrain, fighting a raging inferno or refusing to quit when confronted with the futility of struggling in a meaningless universe. To quote one such literary hero, Samuel Beckett: I can't go on; I'll go on.

Terra Nova at South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5500. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 16. $29-$51.

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