Marsha Norman's 'Traveler' stumbles into a pedantic wilderness

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The question was, would lightning strike in the same place twice? Could Marsha Norman, who last year thrilled critics and the Pulitzer Prize board with her eloquent '' 'Night Mother,'' do it again? Would the American Repertory Theatre be the spawning ground for yet another Broadway hit? In other words, would ''Traveler in the Dark'' be a smash?

The answer, unfortunately, must be ''no.'' It is, as they say, a play with problems.

Ms. Norman, last year's Pulitzer winner for drama and one of the most talked-about new playwrights, is an intelligent, incisive writer who takes a serious view of both life and the theater. Two of her earlier works, ''Getting Out'' and '' 'Night Mother,'' thrashed out gritty, elemental themes - life, death, violence - with heart-rending and intellectually arresting honesty. And now ''Traveler in the Dark,'' in its world premiere at the ART (through March 17 ), probes no less a Herculean topic than faith vs. reason. Unfortunately the play loses, in fact it never finds, its way in a fog of intellectual speechifying. Ms. Norman seems to have misplaced her gift for honesty. ''Traveler in the Dark'' is less an effective drama than a didactic argument between opposing points of view.

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From the very first scene the characters mount their ideological pedestals. Sam, a brillant surgeon and manic humanist, returns home mysteriously brimming with Angst and ready to pick a fight with his widowed father,a God-fearing preacher. He also wants to leave his wife, Glory, a real Lady Bountiful with suede skirt, picnic baskets, and enormous hairdo, and to save his precocious son , Stephen - from Mother Goose and religious myths alike. The stage is literally set for a war of philosophies - humanist (doctor) vs. theist (preacher) vs. bon vivant (wife), all scratching at the tabula rasa (child).

Unfortunately, while the characters are full of straight-from-the-mountaintop creeds, they are bereft of credible life. We want to be moved by Sam the ''genius'' doctor who incurs his apparently life-changing crisis of conscience when he fails first as a healing surgeon and then as a loving human being. Feeling betrayed by life, love, God, and ultimately his own ability to reason through it all, Sam is meant to be the doomed traveler in the dark. But his ghosts - namely the deaths of his mother and now that of a lifelong friend - all happen offstage and in his head. And Sam Waterston's odd performance doesn't move us an inch closer to empathy or tears.

It is all the more frustrating because Ms. Norman is a skillful writer, and the knotty problems surfacing in Sam's life - ''How can I (believe) when I know what happens?'' - are the stuff of which good drama can be wrought. But the writing here is forced and self-conscious, as if the playwright knows she is addressing ''Big Themes'' and ''Real Psychic Pain.'' She is so earnest in telling us the point of her play that she doesn't trust her characters. It's a tremendous barrier, over which the audience's emotions never quite leap.

Also, her dramatic structure is so calculated as to be positively creaky. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and Bible stories are sprinkled throughout the dialogue like so many verbal signposts reading, ''Believe at your own peril.'' Childhood toys are also embedded in a stone wall for a visual signal, in case you missed the point. Son Stephen, of course, gets to drop the Big One: ''Is there a God, Dad?'' And in another scene, all three of the male leads take turns sitting pensively on the garden wall - a trio of Humpty Dumptys adrift in the Garden of Eden. Life's a mystery, all right.

Under Tom Moore's direction, with whom Ms. Norman has worked in the past, the acting is weirdly eclectic and mismatched. Jolts of true emotion that can light up the densest of rhetoric never occur. The talented Hume Cronyn gives a good rendition of the preacher father, but his role is too one-dimensional to be truly satisfying. Phyllis Somerville, as the jolly Panglossian wife, is incredibly miscast. She smirks her way through the trauma, and not for a minute do we believe that she and Sam have been married for years.

Damion Scheller, a TV actor making his stage debut as the little boy, is pretty squeaky, sometimes inaudible and incredibly precocious. The set - a leaf-strewn garden with ceramic animals in front of a shadowy house worthy of the old TV show ''The Addams Family'' - is pleasantly atmospheric. But it's not enough to help this Traveler - the title derives from the rhyme ''Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star'' - find its way.

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