- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

Remember when we faced the future with eagerness rather than dread?

Eric Overmyer’s whimsical 1985 play “On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning” transports us to two points in time when Americans felt on the cusp of a brave new world: the Victorian era and the 1950s. They were particularly potent times to be a woman, constrained by society’s roles yet enjoying selective freedoms and eyeing future decades of unprecedented activism and liberation.

In Arena Stage’s vibrant production, directed by Tazewell Thompson, “Verge” opens with three richly dressed Victorian women standing in three spotlights. In their furbelow-encrusted, jewel-colored gowns, they resemble porcelain figures displayed in a glass case, but this illusion is dispensed quickly as the women get down to business. They are not ornaments, but lady explorers — trailblazers who escape the stern gender roles of their time through perilous travel.

Inspired by actual female explorers Mary Kingsley, Alexandra David-Neel and Fanny Bullock Workman, the characters gather on the threshold of exploring uncharted territory, “Terra Incognita,” toasting their journey with lace parasols instead of crossed sabers.

Mary (Laiona Michelle, nimbly capturing the intellectual rigor and romanticism of her character) is the disciplined academic, combining a love of science with a profound joy in discovering the unknown.

Fanny (Molly Wright Stuart, witty and appealing as the avidly feminine Fanny) is an impeccably well-mannered traditionalist. She totes a full tea service and evening gowns in her backpack and counts among her greatest accomplishments bringing croquet to a tribe of headhunters in the wild.

Alex (Susan Bennett) is the youngest and most forward thinking of the trio, already a fan of ditching her petticoats for men’s trousers and dreaming up peppy song lyrics like Irving Berlin in a corset. Miss Bennett’s performance is distinguished by the brilliant idiosyncratic touches she gives her character — her whole body shimmies and dances with every transmission from the future as though she is constantly undergoing a pop-culture mutation.

The three strike out on a landscape at once geographical and interior. They endure jungle heat and muck and fields of glacial ice on their journey. (Donald Eastman’s subtly effective set design suggests changes in locale through patterns of light scattered across a white expanse.) They encounter such fanciful archetypal characters as Yeti, a Gorge Troll, a friendly cannibal and a Flying Dutchman-style pilot (all played with rowdy abandon by Tom Beckett).

It grows apparent that the women are time-traveling, as their fusty Victorian speech starts getting peppered with phrases such as “Burma Shave,” “Cool Whip,” and “hand jive.” Their brains are getting pop-culture messages from the future, much like the mysterious contraption in Richard Greenberg’s more stylish and intellectual play “The Violet Hour.” With its often obscure period references — including Mr. Coffee, Esso gas and EggBeaters — Mr. Overmyer’s play at times suffers from a twee preciousness. You feel imprisoned either in a Whitman’s Sampler or an episode of “Happy Days.”

Fanny is alarmed — “I’ve seen the future, and it is slang,” she proclaims — but the other two rush toward this exciting, optimistic time in mid-20th-century America. It is 1955 — Hula-Hoops, “I Like Ike” buttons, rock ‘n’ roll, Marilyn Monroe, patio barbecues, and pedal pushers all seem exotic and enchanting to these Victorian heroines. One of the amiable conceits of the play is that the women get googly-eyed about the ‘50s, an era that often pushed women back into constricted roles.

It is telling that two women decide to stay in the 1950s, content with the innovations and the promise of more modernism to come. Only Mary presses on. “I have such a yearning for the future. It is boundless,” she says at the end of the play, standing exultant in a limitless landscape of stars.

It may be hard to imagine not living under the specter of terrorism, global warming and the brutal fallout from natural and man-made disasters. Part of the tender charm of “On the Verge” is its portrayal of a world where everything seemed arching and infinite, where the present was narrowed only by our imagination and the future beckoned with the promise of discovery and exploration.

**1/2

WHAT: “On the Verge or the Geography of Yearning” by Eric Overmyer

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. Southwest

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 11.

TICKETS: $46 to $60

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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