An inventive mixture of the suspenseful and the thought-provoking, Patrick Meyers’ “K2” is making its second climb at Arena Stage. One of the highlights of Arena’s impressive repertoire, it debuted here in 1982 and went on to Broadway and Hollywood. It is being reprised during Arena’s 50th anniversary season following “The Great White Hope,” another of the theater’s landmark productions.
It is easy to see why the two-character play, about mountain climbers stranded on the face of K2, was so successful during its first outing. Its timeless themes of survival, love, courage and commitment are presented in a tension-filled and physically demanding package.
The plot is basic: Two climbers assess their lives while one gallantly seeks to retrieve a lost rope needed for his injured companion’s descent. The true star of the 1982 production was the mountain: Ming Cho Lee’s magnificent vertical wall of ice (styrofoam, actually) that consumed the entire Kreeger stage. Under Allen Lee Hughes’ superb lighting, the craggy face was a constant visual marvel, changing eerily in hues, moods and temperament as the play progressed from sunrise to evening. Over 50,000 board feet of plastic foam was used to construct the set, which won a Tony award for the following season’s Broadway run.
For the revival, Arena a.d. Molly Smith reassembled the original design team (including costumer Noel Borden) and tapped Arena artistic associate Wendy Goldberg to direct. Actors Rick Holmes and Craig Wallace are cast, succeeding Stanley Anderson and Stephen McHattie in the original.
The new set is virtually identical to the first, although technology has come to its rescue. One section of the wall, climbed repeatedly during the performance, is now made of a new durable material used for practice climbing facilities. It was earlier made of high-density urethane, which had to be patched frequently during the run.
Goldberg has accentuated realism throughout the play, even employing climbing consultant Jeff Bartlett to ensure that the mountain is scaled convincingly and the effects of oxygen deprivation are accurately portrayed. The play opens to a loud and eerie Tibetan chimes score by Timothy M. Thompson as the set is slowly revealed in a methodical sunrise.
Combined, the two performers and their scary mountain mostly overcome the weaknesses in Meyers’ script, which is at times meandering and unrealistic. It’s hard to believe, for example, that so much jocularity could occur in such an extreme environment. That Wallace is African-American adds another layer to the story, one not intended by the playwright.
But the acting is superb. Holmes plays the injured climber who does the heavy intellectual lifting. He’s a physicist who, when not tending to his frostbite and broken leg, cavalierly probes the meaning of it all. To him, the unforgiving mountain is a metaphor and God might be found at the end of a rope.
Wallace delivers an equally solid performance as a character opposite in temperament. He’s an assistant district attorney who, unlike his whimsical colleague, lives for the attack. But now he’s the steadfast companion who tries to bolster his colleague’s spirits while struggling vainly for a solution. He is by turns cheerful, optimistic, intense and furious, but always compassionate as he refuses to abandon his chum.