The Swellesley Report: Terra Nova

By Deborah Brown

April 6, 2017

How many Wellesley College students does it take to play a bunch of strong, competitive men determined to make it to the South Pole first? Seven, and you’ll be very impressed with their portrayal of all if you go to see “Terra Nova”, running at Wellesley College Theatre’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre through Sunday, April 9.

It takes a stubborn man to die trying to make history as the first-ever to explore the South Pole, that very bottom of the world.

It takes a stubborn and stupid man to all but encourage that death by clinging to British ideas of the “rules and standards among civilized men.” This is especially true when those rules and standards preach such nonsense as “no dogs allowed on the South Pole” and keep a stiff upper lip (easy enough when they’re freezing off), and for God’s sake, God save the Queen. Captain Robert Falcon Scott, played with absolute presence and authority by Sarah Lord, is that guy.

Scott has gone down in history as the leader of the fateful 1912 expedition/race to be the first to make it to the South Pole. He and every man in his crew died. To add insult to death, he was beaten there by over a month by practical-minded Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his well-supplied crew and their dogs.

Cut from a different cloth than Scott, Amundsen was the type to ignore other men’s rules and write his own playbook. He knows his team is brave and will gladly suffer for the goal, but he doesn’t see suffering as and end unto itself. And if a few dogs get eaten along the way, well, that’s just good planning. That guy, challenger to Scott’s goals and ideals, is played with resignation and quiet emotion underneath a stern exterior, by Juliette Bellacosa (also as Wanda last fall in The Waiting Room).

When these dueling philosophies of facing down and prevailing over brutal reality on its own terms vs. a tragic-hero way of looking at one’s place in the world butt up against each other, you’ve got “Terra Nova”, my good people, a play that still has the power to shock, even though history has already told us the ending. The production, directed by Nora Hussey, is such a powerful and visceral visit to Antarctica that you won’t warm up for days.

“Terra Nova” is written by playwright Ted Tally, who is best known for his screenplay The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which won numerous awards including the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Tally, who attended Yale College and Yale School of Drama, has also earned numerous awards for this play, which first debuted in 1977 at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

On the surface, “Terra Nova” is a simple competition story. Norwegian (and winner of the race to the South Pole) Roald Amundsen has got men and supplies, which are two things that meet with Scott’s approval. Amundsen also has working dogs, however, and his plan for them offends Scott’s sense of decency. Here’s the plan: Amundsen is going to allow the dogs to pull the hundreds of pounds of gear, work their hearts out for the goals of their masters, and then serve as food when the crew has reached the South Pole and needs the strength to get back home. Dog meat will supply that strength, Amundsen (correctly) reasons.

Then there’s Captain Robert Falcon Scott, scorner of situational ethics, who leaves it to the audience “…to decide how sporting that is,” vowing that come what may, he and his men will have played the game as it “ought” to have been played. It is here that Lord really pulls you into the play with a sly way of suggesting, without outright saying it, that you join in and learn the inside story. Her stage presence and ability to make the audience feel Scott in all his stages of adult life and across his many emotions are what make her performance not only stand out, but well worth going to see how this young woman effectively plays an experienced, tough, early 20th-century, explorer.

Well, I was in that audience Scott delivers a wink and a nod to, and I’ve decided about how sporting that is, Captain. My answer to your trick question is that it’s not sporting in the least. In fact, you make sport of me for framing the issue that way, sir. I put this to you, Captain: the expedition itself is not sport. The expedition is not a game. You’ve rather missed the point of it all, old man, and all your heroic ideals won’t keep your men safe or get you the glory you seek. Nothing wrong with it, glory, that is. But there’s a right way to get it, isn’t there? And there’s something not quite right about fame and adulation that comes at the cost of the lives of your entire crew.

I’m with Amundsen, who comes in and out of the story as a sort of omniscient ghost of Christmas That Will Be Horrible, who tells Scott, “You treat your gentlemen like dogs and your dogs like gentlemen.” With that sentence, the order of all priorities are laid bare. Any vision of Amundsen’s canine workers as wannabe lap dogs seeking only a forever home are banished, and the idea that the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care (Offspring, 2008) seems foolish.

The story is told in part through Scott’s journals, woven throughout the play. It is through those entries that we meet Scott’s wife Kathleen, played by  Chiara Kay Seoh. Seoh does an excellent job of portraying a true-blue Englishwoman who is also a free-thinking hippy bohemian type. She too often rushes her lines, however, and at many points in the play I simply missed what she was saying. She was strongest by far in the argument scene with her husband. It was at this point when you could see Seoh’s talent, and it shines brightest when her character is allowed to interact with another character, which is seldom the case for Kathleen.

Throught the journals, we learn that Scott’s camp has set the bar for the “rules of engagement” impossibly high, while the other camp intends to simply walk under a bar they refuse to recognize. Scott’s moral compass, driven by obsession and determination, points only to the South Pole. Meanwhile, Amundsen’s compass is simply a tool that he uses to point him not only to the South Pole, but home from it.

Scott’s rules, in the end, set himself and his crew up for the spectacular and tragic failure they experienced. Still, it is Scott’s rules that allow him and his men to hang onto their basic human dignity. It is here, at the bitter end, that we see the seemingly cold Norwegian melt, as he concedes that although their expedition ended in failure, their lives did not. That Scott’s journey was celebrated in England despite its desperate end seems to give credence to the idea that their lives and deaths did indeed count for much, despite the outcome.

Call it respect for the English rules of engagement. Maybe give a minute to consider that having lived a meaningful life may have nothing to do with achieving an initial goal. Either way, you’ve got to admit, Scott and his crew put on a good show.

Also with:

Maia Zelkind (also in The Waiting Room last fall as Nurse Bruce and Bridget) as Captain Lawrence Edward Grace “Titus” Oates, with thoughtful intelligence and simmering rage. When she delivers the famous line, “”I am just going outside and may be some time,” and dashes out of the tent, I was left to ponder yet another layer of those English standards. Something about selflessness in the face of certain disaster.

Adeline du Crest as Dr. Edward Adrian “Bill” Wilson, who effectively became the calm in the center of every type of  storm the crew encountered.

Chloe Nosan as Lt. Henry Robertson “Birdie”, with an amazing Scottish accent and great good humor.

Megan Ruppe as Petty Officer Edgar Evans, played with levity and liveliness despite the grimness of his situation.

Set design by Wellesley’s own David Towlun. He used old photography of Scott’s crew, and the sets spilled right out into the lobby with video and old news clips. Sparer than a typical Towlun set, in deference to the enormity that is Antarctica. Particularly cool World War I background graphic at the end.

Costume Designer Chelsea Kerl, who somehow made college students appear burly and thick.

Lighting Designer Graham Edmondson; Sound Designer George Cooke; Videographer Johnathan Carr; Stage Manager Jamie Zhang; Movement Coach Lian-Marie Holmes Monroe; Dialect Coach Charles Linshaw; Sound and Video Technician Grace Chin.