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Memphis Flyer Titanic Mystery Play

Circuit Production Keeps The Drama Afloat

By Hadley Hury

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Scotland Road, on view at Circuit Playhouse through October 19th, was originally presented at the 1992 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Centre as a staged reading. It still has that feel; even in full production, the piece -- which runs just under an hour-and-a-half without intermission -- may be considered most successful as a fairly interesting, abstract, and largely auditory theatre experience.

In a small, anonymously bleak, presumably isolated building, we discover a man and a woman discussing their upcoming interview/interrogation of a young woman. The two characters are as sparely drawn and mysterious as the setting, but from their bits of oblique conversation, we are given to believe that John (Tony Isbell) is a professional, though it's impossible to tell what sort, and that Halbrech (Ann Marie Hall) may be a doctor, most probably it would appear, in psychology or perhaps anthropology. We gather, too, that John seems a somewhat suspicious, rather cynical fellow, that he is simultaneously intrigued with what the young woman may have to tell them and intent on exposing her as a fraud. Halbrech seems more open and objective; she is insistent that, whatever the truth of the matter at hand, their subject has probably experienced severe trauma, and that for her stay during the upcoming interviews, she must be treated caringly.

When the young woman arrives on the scene, she is dressed in the style of 1912, complete with lacy shirtwaist and Gibson Girl pompadour. We learn that she was recently found, dressed in this manner, floating on a floe of ice in the North Atlantic, not far from the site of the Titanic's sinking. Halbrech's straightforward questioning and John's increasingly provocative lines of questioning are, at first, to no avail. For several days, the woman will not speak.

Eventually, we learn that John is a descendant of Titanic victim John Jacob Astor and, though his motivations remain unclear, he is determined to unravel this mystery. Is the young woman a survivor of the Titanic? How can she appear to be in her early 20s more than 80 years after the ship went down? Even when she begins to speak, she remains guarded, enigmatic. Although the audience has already been prepared to suspend its disbelief and accept the interplay of romantic melodrama and existential psychology on its own terms, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's use of a one-two punch of surprise gimmicks to bring things to a close stretches thin both our emotional and our intellectual investment.

What Hatcher has done very well is give us an intriguing meditation on the delusion of linear time and the indestructible power of human need, imagination, and connection. What is missing is dramatic integrity, follow-through, a satisfying sense of a whole.

This unfinished quality is felt in the characters themselves, and results in the perception of the play as something more akin to a dramatic reading than a fully fleshed play. The voices and much of what they say may pique our interest, but they remain almost disembodied -- for Hatcher's schematic necessarily confines the characters to reportage and narrative description; there's more drama "as told to" than realized. The character of Halbrech is given especially short shrift; Ann Marie Hall, a fine actor, is relegated primarily to acting with her eyebrows as she is called upon solely to look askance at John's mounting emotional involvement with the mystery woman. Letha Elliot appears near the end of the play as the oldest living Titanic survivor. She acquits herself well but, again, the playwright has created a character with rather anemic function; the woman exists only to bring about one of the denoument's bizarre twists.

Tony Isbell has more to work with as John. Even though the character is nearly as enigmatic as that of the young woman -- and though his actual identity and driving motivation are not even known until Hatcher's last-minute revelations -- Isbell enhances the sense of piece-by-piece problem-solving that is the work's main claim on our interest. He manages not only to hold our interest, but to accrue subtle character clues that bring us as close to accepting the final revelation as we're likely to get.

Amanda Kay Berg as the young woman is appropriately enticing. In her early scenes, Berg's sense of stillness draws the audience both into her own mystery and into Hatcher's metaphysical questions; later, she effectively builds, with Isbell, an emotional context for the unexpected ending.

Although he should have insisted on a more dramatically resonant set design (there's a difference between bleakly abstract and distractingly ugly), director Michael Duggan has found what unifying dramatic arc he can in Hatcher's work and empowered the actors, especially Isbell and Berg, to make the most of the opportunities this fragmentary, but at times intriguing, theatrical work provides.

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