Jules Verne meets L. Frank Baum meets Steve Martin? Eric Overmyer’s 1980’s comedy On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning charms its audience into traversing across time and place with a prolific immersion of fanciful linguistic invention. Part proto-feminist manifesto, part visionary crossword puzzle from an Escher-like perspective with a droll hint of Burnsian documentary style, the crisp, dense script whizzes along, portraying the journey of three intrepid, independent-minded, Victorian lady explorers who set off from “darkest Africa” to seek an unknown, mythical destination, “Terra Incognita”. Along the way they reveal contrasting personalities and magically acquire period slang and familiar objets from different time periods as they proceed from the 1890’s to the 1950’s. “Osmosing” the youngest nomade bohemienne defines their unique travels. They also encounter eight anomalous characters to amuse, inspire, infuriate or beguile them with wisdom and whimsy, all played by one male actor. In his May 1986 NY Times review, the esteemed Mel Gussow extolled the performance he attended as a “kaleidoscopic adventure… joyfully profeminist, blending Tom Stoppard’s limber linguistics with the historic overview of a Thornton Wilder.” I feel Overmyer’s work never reaches the depth of poetic expression or human dimension that Stoppard’s or Wilder’s do, but I share in Gussow’s delight. As produced by WingSpan Theatre Company and directed by Susan Sargeant, this quirky, imaginative play bursts with whimsical entertainment value in its run at the Bath House Cultural Center through October 20.
Those familiar with Susan Sargeant’s directorial endeavors will readily connect her with somber, sophisticated, often absurdist plays from the Classical canon. She frequently takes on less frequently produced works by Albee, Pinter, Beckett and Williams and dominates the region with successful execution of these distinguished playwrights’ challenging works. No bizarre, politically correct, faux “adaptations” or clever, culturally inappropriate “re-imaginings” here… just honest, straightforward production of works as the playwrights intended them. It’s terrific to see her shift her genuine talents deftly to a lighter work full of Gossow’s referenced joy and nonstop fanciful amusement. This play must have been so much fun to direct.
The featured female characters in On The Verge are made of stern stuff, the grit that drove the suffragist movement. From dizzy and wide-eyed to definitively eccentric to traditionally romantic, each woman brings a unique set of responses to their adventures. The work would benefit from more character development, but that’s not what Overmyer had in mind. Sargeant cast three secure, resourceful actors in these roles: Marisa Diotalevi, Jennifer Kuenzer and Barrett Nash. Each “owns” her character and brings a grounded reality to their somewhat caricatured responses. Sargeant cast the versatile chameleon Jeff Burleson as the solo male, a motivational foil to the women. He imbues a bumbling, slightly meta-theatrical charm to all eight “guises” he assumes with intrepid gusto. His 1950’s slick impresario Nicky Paradise is particularly amusing.
My one feminist gripe: I forgive Overmyer the 80’s mentality. BUT if he were to write this today, I hope he would restructure the flaw. For thousands of years women have existed in plays simply to react to men. Very few initiate action. They always respond, or their thoughts and actions center on, what men decide to do/don’t do. Every scene of this play after initial exposition sets the women up to react to what the male character does, even when “he” plays the cartoonish Madame Nhu. I call this work proto-feminist for a reason. It’s definitely On the Verge, to play on its title. I want to push it over the edge. Still a feather in the diverse cap of WingSpan Theatre. As Mel Gussow mused in 1986, “after its premiere at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 1985, it has been presented at nine other regional theaters, including, the Hartford Stage Company.” Overmyer was on to something that worked for audiences, and it still pleases today in Dallas under the careful guidance of WingSpan Theatre’s Susan Sargeant. It closes this weekend. What an inspirational way to prepare for early voting on Oct 22 when a women-driven Wave may help turn America Blue and restore it to sanity. GO BETO.
Mel Gussow SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES MAY 14, 1986:https://www.nytimes.com/1986/05/14/theater/theater-overmyer-s-on-the-verge.html