Chicago Theatre Review
Biscuits and Honey Butter Today!
The Royal Society of Antarctica – Gift Theatre
What if someone told you that your mother, now deceased, bore you in a barren, frozen, faraway land, and that shortly after your birth she perished there…wouldn’t you use her personal journal to try to retrace her footsteps in order to understand more about her? Wouldn’t you challenge all odds to return to the place of your birth, even if it’s the coldest place on earth?
Dee (played with perfect wide-eyed wonder and a contagious joie de vivre by Aila Peck) is compelled to spend three months of her 24th summer working as a janitor at McMurdo Research Station at the bottom of the world. There, in Antarctica, where the sun never sets, frostbite can set in within seconds, a breath can crystalize in midair and a girl just might, somehow, reconnect with the mother she never knew. Dee has been wrestling with this mystery and blaming her father for returning home without her mom, even though he’s devoted his life to raising Dee all by himself. Shannon’s body was never found; and whether her mother became accidentally trapped outside and froze to death, or whether she purposely committed suicide up there in the frozen tundra, Dee wants some kind of closure.
Kicking off a season comprised entirely of world premieres, Mat Smart’s quirky new play is often funny, sometimes very touching and always revealing about the human condition. Having actually experienced time working as a janitor at this very research station, Mr. Smart knows of that of which he writes. In this pristine land of ice and snow, water and mountain peaks, scientists, technical experts and menial staffers who keep the day-to-day workings of the ice station on task all coexist for months and years at a time. Under such circumstances, these hard-working folks often surrender the sane, civilized part of themselves and become a little crazy. In a place where the highlight of the week is a simple, glorious delicacy known as biscuits-and-honey-butter, everyday occurrences take on a special significance.
At the heart of this play are all the weird and wonderful relationships that develop between the men and women of McMurdo Station. Tamara (played with scene-stealing likability and innocence by the charming Brittany Burch) is engaged to an abusive guy back home, but the Station’s UT Tim (a spontaneous and charismatic Jay Worthington) is a far kinder, more romantic and enthusiastic lover. Pam (Lynda Newton, in a fantastic, feisty performance that ranks with her work in “Thinner Than Water”) is blunt, bad-tempered and, for her own reasons, prefers her solitude. Pam’s on-again, off-again affection for the gentle UT Tom (a beguiling, winsome Paul D’Addario) becomes strained, but hope springs eternal in this cold wasteland. Ace (a sadly touching but playful John Kelly Connolly) holds the heart of this piece as a man who, like everyone, just wants to be recognized, valued and loved. His goals make him a comical oddball. Jake (played with restraint and realism by Jay Worthington) is a scientist studying algae that, when subjected to adverse conditions, will become dormant. However, these organisms will spring back to life again when they’re put in water. Dee might secretly wish that her mother could be reborn in this manner, if her body is ever found. Miller, a hunky, young Naval cadet (played with sparkle and joy by Brian Keys) possesses an infectious effervescence and a joy for life’s new experiences. He shares a single, sun-lit night with Dee, climbing mountains and snowboarding, but his influence lingers on.
Directed with an accurate pulse on these very real characters and their relationships with each other, John Gawlik has made this three-hour play seem to fly by in half that time. Ironically, for a play set in Antarctica, this production’s filled with moments of profound warmth and scenes that draw the playgoer into this strangely unfamiliar environment at the bottom of the world. Theatergoers looking for an entertaining, enlightening, thought-provoking play this Spring must share biscuits-and-honey-butter with the crew at McMurdo Station.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 2-April 26 by The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.