Forensic experts are hot, as evidenced by the characters in TV’s “Crossing Jordan” and the three “CSI” series, as well as numerous novels and films. Unfortunately, the forensic anthropologist heroine in Lucinda Coxon’s SCR world premiere is ice cold. Abrasive and relentlessly angry, she keeps theatergoers at a distance — her name given only as “The Woman,” to reinforce that remoteness — and the promising elements of her character are held down by too many plot threads, an excess of direct talk to the audience and a personality that stubbornly stays the same throughout.
The Woman (Natacha Roi), seeking peace from personal and professional pressure, books time in a Naples villa to analyze remains of victims who perished in the 79 A.D. volcanic eruption at Pompeii. Thirty-nine and childless, she’s concerned about whether to have a baby, due to a ticking biological clock and a deceased brother with Down syndrome. This conflict, discussed in detail with sympathetic specialist Dr. Paul (David Paul Francis), never proves touching, since Roi appears to be totally devoid of any maternal instinct.
Roi is a strong, imposing actress, with a vocal quality reminiscent of the late Wendy Hiller, and she projects convincing hostility. This rage is exacerbated when she’s forced to share a villa with the Man (Tony Ward), a geologist writing a book about predicting volcanic eruptions.
Romance of the hate-turns-to-love variety seems unlikely when she utters such negative lines as, “I should do things and say things to make you like me, but I can’t be bothered.” Why any man would attempt communication with this offputting harridan is hard to grasp, especially since she eschews understanding and compassion as though they were emotional diseases.
Even so, the slashing confrontations, in which Ward shouts, “You really creep me out,” and she tells him she’s opening the windows to get rid of his smell, jump out of nowhere and lack credibility. When he struggles to make nice by surprising her with a birthday cake, and she responds nastily, all hope of caring about their relationship goes up in smoke.
Ward is a skilled, likable actor, and he relates warmly to Miguel (Bobby Plasencia), an American who nearly lost his life during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Plasencia’s thoughtful, sensitive interpretation emphasizes the point that life should be lived fully and new experiences embraced before the end comes.
Contact between Plasencia and Ward, though amiable, is talky and undramatic, and this difficulty is true of the piece as a whole. Whenever momentum begins to build, the protagonists address the audience, and their monologues are overextended.
The show’s best moments are simpler ones — particularly an eloquent sequence when Roi tries to make contact with her late brother’s friend (Jennifer Hinds), who also has Down syndrome.
Director David Emmes has assembled a striking physical production representing the barren exterior of Vesuvius with rocks and black sand. He incorporates two walls that double as villa and screens for video designer Austin Switser’s sweeping images of clouds and fiery volcano explosions. Lindsay Jones’ sound and lighting by Tom Ruzika create exciting volcanic eruptions, a catastrophe that temporarily draws Roi and Ward together.
But such howlers as Ward’s remark after a violent tremor — “If we survive this, do you think we should get a cleaner?” — are tough to ignore, and the momentary closeness between the couple feels forced.
The author puts her finger on the production’s problems when Roi announces, “This story has no meaning and it has no ending. It’s a thing stitched together from diverse sources.” These sources are carefully researched and sometimes fascinating in themselves, but the dramatic stitching isn’t tight and frequently unravels, removing power from issues of motherhood, the mystery of natural disasters and the difficulty of forging personal commitments.