The world premiere production of Margit Ahlin’s “Climbing Everest” successfully conveys the excruciating physical hardships of scaling mountains. When the actors are climbing, coughing, struggling and braving bitter cold, Ahlin and director Al D’Andrea create a frigid, often fatal environment, and we feel nature’s fury. It’s when the characters talk, in dialogue that veers from down to earth to self-consciously poetic, that the story becomes predictable, leading to a climactic section that cries for editing.
Initially inspired by an Outside magazine article that Jon Krakauer expanded into the bestselling “Into Thin Air,” Ahlin reworked the conception to center on a gutsy young climber, Mallory (Katie A. Keane), who sets out to locate the body of her dead brother Shipton (Matthew Siegan) at the top of the world’s tallest peak.
The idea of following her as she risks her life in this quest is a gripping one. Ahlin sustains tension despite flashbacks (especially the opening one) that interfere with dramatic flow.
Exchanges with irresponsible sister Hillary (Aubrey Joy Saverino) and depressed mother Julia (Carol Ketay), who mourns the climbing death of her husband, are cliched and unnecessarily delay Mallory’s journey. Hillary eventually evolves into a vital plot component, and her early shallowness doesn’t suggest that she could become the mature adult into which Ahlin transforms her.
As desperately determined Mallory, Keane gives a portrayal that ranges from powerful to excessive. In softer moments, she embodies admirable courage and love of family, notably during conversations with the ghost of her deceased father (Tom Dugan). Then, partly due to melodramatic writing, she has emotional outbursts that seem ludicrous when belted out in high altitudes; you wonder where that roaring vocal strength would come from at 29,000 feet. Each time these rages subside, Keane regains her un-thespish human quality and capably projects the pain of a woman who expects to die and must come to grips with the idea.
The plot becomes more absorbing with the arrival of Jinwu (Feodor Chin), contributing an excellent portrait of an American-educated Chinese official who helps her, then feels romantically rejected and storms off in an unconvincingly written departure. He’s replaced by Mallory’s British boyfriend Hunter (Aaron Hendry), and there’s a lighthearted, engaging chemistry between these two despite weird dialogue (Hunter: “Your lips are so chapped”; Mallory: “You romantic bastard”).
Hendry’s magnetism is keenly poignant, since we know his time is limited, and D’Andrea’s tense staging makes his fall off a defective ladder one of the production’s high spots.
Losing a favorite character is always a danger dramatically, and the tale never quite recovers from Hunter’s demise. Jinwu’s return, implausible as it is, gives the plot some charge, and there’s a thunderous, explosive avalanche with superlative sound effects by Drew Dalzell. Steven Young’s lighting strongly highlights the terror of icy clarity and deadly darkness, giving impact to the sequence when Mallory finally discovers her brother’s body.
Covering events in Nepal, Aspen, London and Tibet, Ahlin has too many scenes — 27 in all — but fine supporting turns smooth out rough spots. Peter Kwong, Michael Tolfo and Michael Yama each tackle four parts and keep them distinctive.
Yevgenia Nayberg’s set, made up of huge, boxlike structures painted white and textured to resemble snow, doesn’t remotely resemble a mountain and hurts the show’s overall credibility.