Lawrence Howard, Portland’s best-known armchair adventurer and one of the city’s most engaging raconteurs, returned to the stage at Alberta Abbey on Saturday night with another tale of gritty endurance and testing of mettle at the ends of the world. Shackleton, the Untold Story unfolds the adventure of the other, less glamorous, and in certain ways more calamitous arm of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, his failed but valiant attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, a brutal trek of 1,800 miles through the most forbidding climate on Earth. (The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had made it to the South Pole and back three years before, but not across the entire continent.)
The Untold Story, a fresh piece from Portland Story Theater that is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, expands on a tale Howard first told in 2012, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare: The True Story of the 1914 Voyage of the Endurance. This time around, Howard concentrates on the disaster that beset the expedition’s support crew, whose task was to approach the continent from Hobart, Tasmania, sail into the relatively well-known Ross Sea, and establish a series of supply camps from the ice floes to the Beardsmore Glacier that the main expedition could use for rest and sustenance on its way across the continent after reaching the South Pole. But, while Shackleton’s Endurance got caught in the ice floes during foul weather and set adrift with the crew aboard during its approach from the South American side, the 10 members of the support crew suffered a far more perilous disaster: their ship, the Aurora, broke loose in a gale and drifted back across the ocean, finally landing, unmanned, on the southern shore of New Zealand, thus alerting the public for the first time that the largely inexperienced crew was marooned on the ice.
It was not until January 1917 that the Aurora, having been repaired and refitted, returned to rescue the survivors. In between lay a tale of disaster, extreme fortitude, mistakes, bad decisions, near-misses, and the stresses of life at the extreme. Dogs, those essential workers and companions, perished. Terrifying storms set in. Isolation dampened men’s souls. Rash decisions and brave actions became grueling commonplaces. Scurvy ravaged the crew, bending and weakening men already tested to the physical limit. Death arrived, sometimes inevitably, sometimes foolishly.
As a teller, Howard takes his time, without letting things drag. This is about a two and a half hour journey, including intermission, which is of course a snap of the finger compared to the excruciatingly frozen ticking of the Antarctic clock for these men, who had no distractions from the elements and the moment-to-moment need to survive. But Howard is an excellent guide, an amiable and quietly compelling companion, and it’s worth the time. He’s a bit of a storytelling engineer, or mechanic: he builds his tale on a careful construction of details that suggest the intense tedium of these men’s lives on the edge, and yet keep us constantly enthralled by the large picture of human challenge and adventure. At key points he cuts back to the story of the main Shackleton expedition, so that we know more about what was happening than anyone in either party knew at the time. In the end, he does what storytelling does best: he sits us down beside a virtual fire and tells a tale of adventurous deeds. We get to shudder, and marvel, and then go safely home.
Shackleton, the Untold Story repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 30, at Alberta Abbey as part of the Fertile Ground festival. It’s also scheduled to play at The Pavilion in Cascade Locks on March 26, and at the Cascades Theater in Bend on April 16.