November 22, 2012

Play traces fatal South Pole expedition


---- — SARANAC LAKE — Pendragon Theatre presents “Terra Nova” during the centennial of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

Playwright Ted Tally’s Obie Award-winning play was written while he attended Yale Drama School in 1977.

“It’s just a very, very interesting play that chronicles a major historical event,” said Bob Pettee, director.

“It raises lots of issues about a sense of nationalism and national pride, life-and-death decisions within the midst of really extreme circumstances.”

Scott (1868-1912), a British naval officer, first attempted to reach the South Pole in 1901. He and his team fell 450 miles short of their goal. Six years later, Ernest Shackleton, a member of Scott’s first expedition, came within 97 miles of the geographic pole. 

In 1908, a Shackleton-splinter group, traveling on foot without dogs or pack animals, raised the Union Jack over the South Magnetic Pole.

On June 10, 1910, Scott sailed on the “Terra Nova” to Antarctica. On Jan. 17, 1912, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, Edgar Evans and Scott reached the South Pole only to find the Norwegian flag planted by Roald Amundsen’s five-man expedition.

Crestfallen, Scott and his team embark on their return. An injured Evans dies along the way. Oates commits suicide by blizzard.

Scott, Wilson and Bowers perish in a nine-day blizzard within 11 miles of One Ton Depot, their resupply camp.

“The whole thing is about the struggle,” Pettee said. “They did find Scott’s journal after his party didn’t make it back. Lots of words in the play are taken from his journal. It’s a voice-from-the-grave type of experience about his heroic attempt. Some people describe him as stupid and a bad planner. The play deals with what he thought about it. In his journal, he is essentially writing a letter to his wife, the public and all kinds of people of what this cold adventure was like. It’s astonishing, actually, for a playwright to fill in the gaps.”

“Terra Nova” stars Matthew Dubrey, Matt Eick, Jordan Hornstein, Chris Leifheit, Megan Macdonald, Chris McGovern and Brandon Patterson.

“The Norwegians arrived a month ahead of the Englishmen,” Pettee said. “Scott arrived a whole month later, which meant he was going to run into bad weather on the way back.”

Though the Norwegians and the Englishmen didn’t cross paths, Amundsen appears to Scott in the play.

“He acts as a foil or force at times,” Pettee said. “He’s prodding Scott to think about things in a different way. One of Amundsen’s key phrases is ‘You need to think of the details. You need to think of everything as a tool … a dog, a man. If it breaks down, you throw it away.’”

Evans and Oates’s injuries slows the expedition, thereby dooming them all.

“We do see these people surviving almost completely insurmountable odds. There’s a heroic attitude. There’s something that is very satisfying about Scott’s rise to deal with his situation in a heroic way,” Pettee said.

In one conversation with the ghostly Amundsen, the trapped Scott realizes he was born for this moment.

“His arrival at the pole second is not the point. He made this journey and survived in a heroic fashion until the end,” Pettee said.

The play’s first act centers on the expedition’s hopeful beginning. The second act centers on their inability to return alive.

“It ends in a very hopeful way with actual words from Scott’s diary,” Pettee said. “How he talked about the journey and party of men he’s been with and how they have persevered.”

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IF YOU GO WHAT: "Terra Nova" by Ted Tally. WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Nov. 29 and 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1. WHERE: Pendragon Theatre, 15 Brandy Brook Ave., Saranac Lake. ADMISSION: Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students, and $10 for those 17 and under. CONTACT: For reservations, call 891-1854. For questions, email or visit