Revived by Retro Productions, we are treated to Eric Overmyer’s alternative Victorian fantasy, On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning, that takes three vibrant, independent women of 1888 on an expedition not just through deepest, darkest “terra incognita” but also forward 67 years into a very different America. Mores, as well as language as they know it, are at risk.
Over the course of 22 scenes (and we don’t know how many months), we observe the interactions of Fanny (Heather E. Cunningham), a woman who leaves her husband home alone so she can go on adventures, Mary (Felicia J. Hudson), a career woman recording everything of significance for her Geo Society, and the young, still impressionable Alex (Kelsea Baker). This is very much a tale of a wondrous journey. And as Fanny says more than once, “You carry what you collect.”
Along the way we meet Grover, Fanny’s husband; Alphonse, who may or may not be from Alsace-Lorraine, but we do know he has recently eaten a German airman; a Yeti, an abominable snowman; the Gorge Troll, a 1950s-inspired leather jacketed greaser; Gus, a charming, naive teen-aged gas station attendant; Madame Nhu, a carnival fortune teller without a carnival; Mr. Coffee, an elegant gentleman who may or may not be appearing to Fanny in a dream; and Nicky Paradise, a lounge singer/hotel and casino owner who sweeps Fanny off her feet, all the males (and Madame Nhu) played to great comic effect by William Franke.
The play is verbally dense. Alliterative plays on words are one thing, but no working actress should be expected to rattle off words like “mucilagenous” or “circumglobularly” in an aside to the audience. And there are a lot of asides, which are really the women’s journal entries said aloud. Some of the asides are truly revelatory in the depth of the characters’ fascination with what they have seen in their travels. And there is an unsaid aside that happens later in the play that is absolutely haunting. After Fanny meets Mr. Coffee – a conversation where she finds her husband has declared her legally dead so he can remarry – she is set to read from what she had written to her husband, but she stops, folds it, and walks away.
Director Sara Thigpen has found a lot to sculpt within this play. Moments that stand out in her defining of the characters are as such – on her introduction to the Kodak, the recently invented “camera,” Fanny asks Alex, “How do you know that it works?” Alex replies, “You just trust. You click, you store, you protect, you wait.” Fanny responds, “You hope and pray.” Alex counters, “You trust.” Where Fanny, because she is a woman of age and experience, comes off as a motherly type, Alex is the young, inquisitive female ready to embrace change. She tries to toss out the large words like her fellow travelers, but falls into malapropisms, as in “I am delicious. I mean delirious. Not delicious.” Later in the play, in 1955, Mary comes back from her solo visit to the casino absolutely giddy with her winnings and her telling of seeing her first casino stage show. While it’s a turning point in her education, we are not surprised when Mary tells her friends that she is continuing on the journey.
The joy in watching this play is in the anachronisms and in the ghoulish humor. Mary defends cannibals – “You had to keep them from eating your porters. Frequent head counts were the order of the day.” Fanny, in one of her asides – “I introduced croquet to the headhunters of the headwaters of the Putamayo…Of course, I insisted they use only regulation wooden balls…The rascals were always batting their latest trophies about.” One of the first artifacts of the “new world,” an eggbeater, is thought to be a marsupial unicycle. Alex and Mary mistake Cool Whip for Noxzema. They “osmos” new words to assign them meaning. Fanny, to Alex, “As long as you’re at it, osmos Red Chinese for us.” Alex replies, “Let me try. Something’s coming in, yes, like a radio transmission…Don’t ask,” is one of those moments where a definition uses another unknown contemporary word to define its meaning. At one point, Fanny realizes, “Mary, we must locate a translator. Alexandra will soon be totally incomprehensible.” Language takes a beating in the future.
Inventive set and projection design by Jeff Stander places us firmly in Terra Incognita in the first act whereas the 1955 of the second act takes us magically to an Esso station and a “hip” nightclub. Ben Philipp’s costumes for the Victorian women are warm sepia tones evoking the photography of turn-of-the century postcards. His 1955 outfits run from a beautiful ball gown for Fanny to hot pedal pushers and leather jacket for the rock musician Alex. The lighting design of Kia Rogers is appropriately warm toned for Terra Incognita and then cooler and lively for 1955.
Kelsea Baker as Alex has the innocent exuberance and infectious joy of a young person keen to experience everything that comes her way. Felicia J. Hudson as Mary has the true yearning for the unknown that keeps her on the path of wide-eyed discovery. The Fanny of Heather E. Cunningham, with her heart very much steadfast in the conventions of the Victorian ladies of Americana, is touching in her accepting, and then embracing, the life she comes to know in the new century. This On the Verge is not about where you are going, but with whom.
On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning (through September 24, 2022)
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one 10-minute intermission