Unlike other, familiar titles that circulate regularly through local theaters, Ted Tally’s drama Terra Nova is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a remarkable play telling a powerful, true story that, with proper casting, affords audiences memorable, tour de force performances. And yet, it is infrequently staged. It took more than a decade after it had toured the U.S. before it landed (off-Broadway) in New York. Two productions were mounted in Portland in the 1980s; the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has never produced the play.
Pentacle Theatre, nestled in the hills a few miles west of Salem, offers good reason for attention to be paid this summer. Terra Nova, which tells the early-20th-century tale of British explorer Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica, opens there Friday and runs through July 30.
The two-act play is directed by Scott Ramp, who was active at the theater in the early 1980s. Since then he’s been working as an actor, director, and makeup artist while also serving on the teaching faculty of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood. Over several decades, he has mentored and taught hundreds of artists.
With his Pentacle roots and entertainment industry credentials, it was probably inevitable that when Ramp and his wife, Barbara, moved back to Salem in 2020, Terra Nova was destined to land on the Salem theater’s stage. He’s long been infatuated with the play and has directed it, appeared in it, and designed props for it. Over the years, he’s also talked with some of the actors who appeared in the original production by Yale Repertory Theatre, including Michael Gross of the 1980s TV sit-com Family Ties.
“There’s something about the truth of the story, and something about Antarctica just fascinates me,” Ramp said. “My wife can attest that I’m kind of a nut about it.”
When Ramp returned to Oregon, he brought some interesting luggage: a meticulously hand-crafted arctic sled he’d built for a 2012 production of Terra Nova in Los Angeles. He is particularly proud of this, along with the surprisingly authentic props used in the show.
But he is more proud of his cast, who have been through weeks of British dialect work and grueling rehearsals for a production that, among other things, realistically portrays men dying in the snow. Ken Hermens, who plays Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans, is the first to go, with frostbite and then gangrene consuming his exhausted body before he finally loses his mind. It’s one of the grimmest stage deaths I’ve ever seen.
“It’s a physically demanding show,” Ramp said. “They’re exhausted at the end of every rehearsal. These guys are working so hard, they deserve an audience.”
Terra Nova was adapted by then-24-year-old Tally from the journals of Scott’s 1910 expedition to Antarctica, which turned out to be a race. At about the same time, five Norwegians led by Roald Amundsen also were trying to be the first to reach the South Pole.
Amundsen (played by Tim Jaeger) got there first and returned safely; Scott’s team, demoralized after finding that Amundsen had planted a flag 34 days before they arrived, didn’t make it. Two members of the team died during the long march back. Exhaustion and the cold claimed Scott and two more while they were pinned down by a blizzard in a flimsy tent only 11 miles from a storage depot that might have saved them.
The solid ensemble features Pentacle’s on-staff technical director Chris Benham in the physically and emotionally demanding role of Scott, who in Tally’s telling finds himself both taunted by Amundsen (Ramp notes that the two never actually met) and in dialogue with his wife Kathleen (Kaelyn Kappes). Having the two drift in and out of the action in both flashbacks and in Scott’s imagination lends Terra Nova a surreal quality in sync with the reality that people dying in the cold are known to hallucinate. “Really, it’s an extraordinary place,” Amundsen tells Scott in one scene. “It wants so much for you to be dead.”
Rounding out the cast are Rob Sim as Dr. Edward “Bill” Wilson, Travis Brown as Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates (a role Ramp has played), and Zach DuFault as Lt. Henry “Birdie” Bowers.
Terra Nova (the play takes the name of Scott’s ship) was the play that heralded Tally as a talented artist with a gift for adaptation, a skill he illustrated with powerful effect for a global audience decades later with his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.
Both scripts, in their own way, create imaginative space for the audience to fill. One character in Terra Nova dies offstage, running madly through the snow and ice, unseen even by his companions. Scott and his wife frequently talk of their son, who is not shown. And it’s through dialogue that we’re informed of a macabre reason Scott’s adversary had a tactical advantage: Amundsen used sled dogs, and in more ways than one. “A husky,” he tells Scott, “is 50 pounds of dinner hauling you along until you need to eat it.”
An adventure story, a character study, and a critique of British class society, Terra Nova plays out against a minimalist, expressionistic set designed and built by Benham that works well with Quinn Connolly’s lighting design. It’s true to Tally’s intent: “No attempt should be made at the literal representation of an Antarctica landscape, yet this should be suggested, both in its starkness and its beauty. The setting above all should be simple and flexible, close to a bare stage.” Mission accomplished.
The script includes a quotation by the British biologist Thomas Huxley, apparently from Scott’s journals: “So far as I can venture to offer an opinion on such a matter, the purpose of our being in existence, the highest object that human beings can set before themselves, is not the pursuit of any such chimera as the annihilation of the unknown; but it is simply the unwearied endeavor to remove its boundaries a little further from our sphere of action.”
Terra Nova is a poignant and occasionally horrifying artistic rendering of the price such endeavors can exact, and an indication that Pentacle’s post-pandemic theater is ready and willing to swing for the fences. Across the Willamette River downtown, The Verona Studio sadly did not survive COVID-19, but after burning a ghost light for nearly 18 months, Pentacle Theatre is back on the boards with serious and ambitious work.
Pentacle Theatre will perform Terra Nova July 8-10, 14-17, 21-24, and 28-30. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. For more information and tickets, visit the website or call 503-485-4300. Pentacle’s COVID policy requires theatergoers to wear masks and show proof of vaccination or a third-party negative COVID test taken within 48 hours of the show.