Eight strangers are wintering over at the South Pole in the name of science. It’s 1986. They’re researching known and unknown phenomena. Some are researching in established fields, others fighting to prove their version of the truth, and all of them facing down complicated revelations about themselves and the world they’re all trying, in one way or another, to preserve. They have eight months in sub-zero conditions to prove their hypotheses. Or change their minds. Or save the world.
This is the kind of period piece that, wonderfully, shows when it was written more than when it takes place. With the advantage of watching from thirty years in the future, we already know about the ozone hole and the melting of polar ice and the thousands of ways we’ve destroyed our generous planet, but the moral and philosophical struggles of this little international crew are the same difficult questions we’re facing down today. How do you build trust with someone whose country (and perspective) is at war with yours? How do you take on a problem so large it might swallow the world whole? How do you continue to choose to be brave?
An important part of understanding this play is that this “you” is distinctly American in perspective. For all of its many cultures (and, wonderfully, its many languages —there is a long, glorious stretch of largely untranslated Norwegian that is simultaneously one of the funniest and most heartwarming things I’ve ever seen on stage), this is an American play. And I mean that in the best sense of the word! E.M. Lewis’ writing is beautiful and the scope of her themes appropriately epic — much like The Kentucky Cycle, or Angels in America, both marathons Magellanica has already been compared to.
(Though its Americanness also presages an ending that is a little too tidy and uplifting for the reality we can all now see for ourselves, inside the theatre or out. I guess that’s another question: how do we, as Americans, hold onto hope without blinkering ourselves?)
Also, for what it’s worth, there’s something especially thrilling about seeing a new Oregon play with an almost all-Oregon cast at one of the most established Oregon theatres. Some parts of it are more successful than others — there are plotlines that could do with a little less air, and Dámaso Rodriguez’s determinedly literal direction has an unfortunate tendency to squash some of the text’s potential poetry — but when it works, it really works. Over the course of these long winter months, these five hours, we watch these eight characters bloom into full, complicated people. We huddle in together to listen, and learn, and wait for the sun.
photo via Artists Rep