For a production set in a small black-box theatre, Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Terra Nova” is oddly majestic. The minimalist set is in front of a backdrop of breathtaking Antarctic landscapes arranged by projection designer and videographer Jonathan Carr, splendor certainly lent an air of majesty to the production. However, what really brought “Terra Nova” to the edge of the sublime was the cast’s ability to portray deep emotional lows.
“Terra Nova” tells the story of an infamous 1912 expedition to the South Pole, consisting of a five-man band of British naval officers led by Captain Robert Scott (Sarah Lord ’20). The expedition successfully reached the South Pole on foot, but all five officers died on the trek home.
The production decided to have all the characters use regionally-accurate accents, a decision that I couldn’t totally agree with; some of the performers seemed to struggle to find their voices, especially early in the show, slipping in and out of accents or between different ones. They quickly found their footing, but it was still noticeable enough that I feel the show would have been better if accents weren’t mandated for every single performer.
It felt like an unnecessary distraction; while the characters may have been British and Scottish, the story is universal. During the second act, the crew lament their situation again and again, losing hope and crew members; they feel like they’re trekking towards certain death, but still resolve to press onwards. The message was not lost on the students in the audience.
Nor was it lost on the performers. Lord in particular loses herself in the character of Scott, portraying everything he goes through, from trying to fight Antarctica’s inexplicably strong pull on him at home, to his attempts to project a sense of calm to his crew, to the guilt and responsibility he feels when his men start to die. When he falls to his knees and begins to weep during the show’s emotional climax, you’re there for a moment with him, freezing to death in Antarctica. The room gets colder, and louder.
Backing Lord up is the expedition’s crew, consisting of Lawrence Oates (Maia Zelkind ’20), Edward Wilson (Adeline du Crest ’19), Henry “Birdie” Bowers (show-stealing Chloe Nosan ’20, with a Scottish burr and good comedic timing), and Edward Evans (Megan Ruppel ’20). The group has wonderful chemistry together, transitioning smoothly and gradually from the cheery banter of a group of backpackers to the horror and sadness of a group of people realizing that all is lost. They fight, joke and despair together expressively and effectively.
Unfortunately, the chemistry between the crew is not present between Scott and his wife, Kathleen (Chiara Kay Seoh ’19). Part of this is due to the minimalism of the set; while the crew’s scenes are at least grounded by the sled they pull and the tent they set up and dismantle, the scenes between Scott and Kathleen are pushed onto a simple black bench on the corner of the stage, with no other props to represent their home. They stand and sit stiffly in and around the bench, and seem almost flat when they talk to each other. Perhaps the bench and the corner are meant to represent the way Scott’s relationship with his wife is pushed to the side in favor of his dreams of exploration.
Seoh’s Kathleen is best when she speaks not with Scott, but in diary entries that echo the misfortunes faced by the crew and contrast them with her domestic life and her anxieties about her husband. By the end of the play, when she poignantly describes the grief she feels for Scott, we finally feel a deep emotional connection between them, and her final speech resonates. If only it had been present in their interactions onstage.
Despite its flaws, Wellesley’s “Terra Nova” was for the most part a well-executed production. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bury myself in Antarctic snow or keep pressing desperately towards my destination, but I could see why one would choose either.