Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge; or, The Geography of Yearning is a sci-fi adventure drama from 1985 that probably doesn’t get produced nearly as much as it should. The time-travel milieu of the play would definitely hold an appeal for audiences that might not normally think of themselves as interested in attending theatre. Three women from 1888 explore the strange world of Terra Incognita--an uncharted place where time and space are bent precariously into the future.
Margaret Tomasiewicz plays Mary Baltimore--dedicated explorer who is the spiritual center of the trio.
Annie Kefalas plays Fanny Cranberry--the charmingly rational conservative of the group from an era when conservatives were rational.,,mostly. (She cannot embrace life in a world in which women wear trousers.)
Nadja Simmonds plays Alex Cafuffle--the youngest of the group who loves lyricism and engaging in the newfound novelty of portable photography.
Maureen Kilmurry directs a production of the play at Marquette which runs through the 19th. Strong women exploring unknown futures in a time travel story...uh...yeah...there’s no reason this show shouldn’t sell-out. It’s a really satisfying drama of the kind that rarely makes it to the stage.
On the Verge has a lot in common with pop sci-fi/fantasy adventure that leans heavily in the direction of deep drama about the collective human psyche’s vicissitudes over the course of the 20th century. There’s pop fantasy appeal to the story that comes in a number of different flavors. Here are a few of those flavors (and a whole lot of spoilers):
VR Role-Playing Game Fan Theory
Like all great fantasy adventure pop fiction, there’s room for fan theory in On the Verge. The Marquette production has a really fun Scenic Design by Madelyn Yee. Big white triangular tiles are bordered by black in a big tessellation that forms a landscape complete with distant mountain peaks. This is Yee’s conception of the magical land of Terra Incognita--that strange and unknown land through which the three explorers journey.
Sitting down and looking at Yee’s set before the show, I thought one thing: Battlezone. There I was sitting amidst the sound of the ocean cleverly washing through the theatre thanks to sound designer Linda Pozen and all I could think of was this ancient coin-op cabinet video arcade game. A landscape made of up clean abstract lines with a big mountain in the background has something about it that really vividly feels like ’80s vector graphics landscape that’s been cast in black and white. Over the course of the play, it’s bathed in beautifully vibrant shifting colors by Lighting Designer Chester Loeffler-Bell. Big primary colors and abstract vector-graphics-like landscape are reminiscent enough of a video game that it almost feels like the whole play could be a really sophisticated virtual reality RPG. So maybe the three main characters are all women from the far future playing the roles of late 19th century explorers entering a time travel adventure. Of course, this idea is is never directly expressed or even hinted at in the script. It’s not just the design work on the show. (This script has A LOT in common with the recent Westworld TV series set in a virtual world. Likely it wasn’t intentional, but the screenwriters definitely seemed to be absorbing thematic aspects of On the Verge through some sort of clairvoyant osmosis.)
VR roleplaying isn’t what the playwright Overmyer would have been thinking about when he wrote the play in the mid-1980s, but it wouldn’t have been entirely out of place for a sci-fi script from that era to include this sort of thing. It's been a fixture of sci-fi going back to the mid 20th century at least. (My favorite sci-fi VR story is still Philip K. Dick’s Maze of Death, a novel that was published all the way back in 1970.)
Characterization Through Brand Names (or the Tragedy of Fanny’s Missed Potential)
Like all great fantasy adventure pop fiction, there are countless, little arcane details to dissect. Of particular note are the little bits of clairvoyance that fascinate the conservative Fanny. All three explorers find themselves haunted by phantom words and understandings from a future they’ve never been to. The script has Fanny Cranberry particularly taken with the names, “Cool Whip” and “Mr. Coffee.” These two brand names captivate Fanny in the strange new world of the future. Rather than continuing to boldly explore the future, she satisfies herself with becoming a wife of a night club owner in 1955.
She shouldn’t have landed in 1955, though. Cool Whip was first introduced in 1966 and Mr. Coffee was introduced in 1972. So Fanny is dazzled by echoes from more distant futures than the one she ends up in. She’s settling for life in 1955 because it’s quaintly conservative and she’s afraid of the future...but it’s a future that contains those two phantom bits of clairvoyance that seem most captivating to her. So her fear of the future limits her to a more conservative era when she could have ended up with so much more.
Granted, Fanny isn’t entirely to blame for settling into the role of a 1950s housewife. She’s thrown-off the path by running into a nicely omniscient gentleman (possibly god played with benevolent charm by Michael Nicholas who also plays a yeti elsewhere in the story. He’s other things too, but...the guy plays a yeti. That’s so cool...) The seemingly omniscient gentleman in question neither confirms nor denies being Mr. Coffee, which might have confused matters for her. Later-on in the strangely warped 1955, she even encounters Cool Whip. So she ends up settling into 1955. It’s kind of tragic that Fanny couldn’t open herself to something more active. If she could have accepted a more open world where women could wear trousers perhaps she could have continued exploring into the future. Instead she winds-up a glamorous Marilyn Monroe-like mid-century housewife when she could have been so much more. Annie Kefalas plays this tragedy with a stern haplessly happy earnestness that’s remarkably endearing. It’s her choice and she’s happy with it.
The Armchair Fanboy Producer
Like all great fantasy adventure pop fiction, On the Verge lends itself to armchair fanboy producer musings. (For the record, my dream cast for a local non-Marquette production of On the Verge would be: Beth Lewinski as Mary Baltimore, Ruth Arnell as Fanny Cranberry and Grace DeWolff as Alex Cafuffle. Sadly, this feels like it would be kind of an obscure list for most of Milwaukee, but actresses like these performing together in a show like this would be amazing.)
On the Verge may be a one-off, but it really feels more like the only episode in a series. Far from coming across like a failed pilot episode of something that never got picked-up, it feels like an episode somewhere in the middle of a long serial. Though it’s clearly a standalone, it feels like the final episode of like...Season 4 of a Netflix/HBO show called On The Verge. At the beginning of the play, all three women are seasoned adventurers who talk of many early expeditions to various other parts of the world. It’s like three different versions of Lara Croft up there...or maybe Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, Jane Porter from Tarzan and Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark...or something like that...the point is all three of the adventurers have had a long history coming into this story, so it feels like them middle of a longer adventure serial.
I had a good enough time with the three adventurers that I’d love to see more...even though I know there’s never going to be a sequel. (Or prequel.) If there’s anything wrong with On the Verge, it’s the fact that there’s only one “episode.” It’s adventure fiction. Adventure fiction NEEDS to be done in serial. It’s the way people relate best to the genre. Thankfully, Liz Shipe has promised more adventures of adventurer Gertie Pike in future installments of her Alvin Tatlock character that appeared at the last Milwaukee Fringe Fest. Until then...through Sunday and one more weekend we have Kilmurry’s staging of On the Verge.
Marquette University Theatre’s production of On the Verge; or, The Geography of Yearning runs through Nov. 19 at the Helfaer Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-288-7504. My concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.