'Terra Nova' recalls the race to the South Pole, but loses on stage

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If you take the title literally, you go to Ted Tally's play, ''Terra Nova'' (appearing at the Studio Arena Theatre here until March 11), with hopes of seeing a little new ground broken.

The title refers to the name of a ship commissioned by Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, the British adventurer and explorer, for his fateful attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott has been ruminating about his dubious place in history, which he worries will merit him ''a name on a plaque in the fifth floor of the Admiralty.'' So he tells his pregnant wife that he's off to break new ground with his ship and crew.

Alas, things don't turn out that way . . . for him or for us.

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This play, first staged in 1977 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where Tally studied, and at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1979, attempts to knit together the threads of Scott's unraveling life and thoughts as he and his men perish on their way back from the pole. They were beaten to the punch by a group of ''barbarian'' Norwegians, who turn the trick by using dogs to drag them there , and then eating the dogs on the way back. All of which leads to much philosophizing about the struggle between the human spirit and the beast that supposedly rages in all of us.

''Terra Nova'' fails in its attempt to weave a psychological portrait of man against the elements within and without himself, although it succeeds mildly as a basic survival-of-the-fittest tale. The problem is that, halfway through the first act, you are likely to find yourself sitting there wondering why a regional theater, with only seven productions to offer each year, has chosen to plunk you down in the middle of an icecap.

''Terra Nova'' is an adventure tale, but certainly not a creatively adventurous undertaking for a theater, unless you consider the challenges of creating an Antarctic wilderness on stage and convincingly moving the action back and forth from there to the cozy parlors of England in the early 1900s.

On one level, the Studio Arena production meets these challenges. John Scheffler's gaunt ice forms work as forbidding surroundings for the life-and-death side of the work; and Robby Monk's lighting does valiant service in changing keys to indicate change of locales. But the inner design of this production lacks inspiration, and what could become productively terrifying remains only scary.

We get into deep problems in the direction, which fails to bring characters together in any convincing emotional tug of war. Scott's real-life scenes with his wife bring them no closer together than the written correspondence, which they each speak into the void. Partly, this is the fault of a script that tends to pit one British pose against another. But much of the blame can be laid at director Kathryn Long's doorstep.

Jacob Brooke delivers a reasonably pliant performance as Scott. But Rand Bridge's Norwegian accent as Roald Amundsen wanders all over Europe, occasionally straying into French and even Transylvanian. And John Curless overacts to a degree matched only by the odd Monty Python sketch.

''Terra Nova'' does one thing well: It hits you with brutal images of struggle and death in the frozen wilds. But, for all its presentation of danger, it is a safe undertaking - safe and dull.

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