D. Tucker Smith weaves fiction and history through an interracial love story in “The Great Game,” which explores a clash between the expanding Russian and British empires in 1870 and a racist mother’s reconciliation with her daughter-in-law. Auds with a knowledge of 19th century history will be better able to become involved with the characters, who wrestle with intrigue, deception, emotional conflicts and commitment to their beliefs. But while the classically structured, straightforward drama provides solid entertainment, it needs more narrative clarity.
Smith has drawn on several books about the tensions between the empires and about George H. J. Hayward, an adventurer from an aristocratic British family financed by the Royal Geographic Society to travel to the western Himalayas and map the Pamir Mountains.
Penned during summer 2006 while Smith was in residence at a North Carolina playwrights retreat, the drama is produced by Randall Wreghitt, who shepherded “Little Women: The Musical” from its 2004 Duke U. staging to Broadway and currently has “Grey Gardens” on the Rialto. However, no future commercial plans have been announced for “The Great Game.”
Hayward (Marcus Dean Fuller) and his buddy English tea planter Robert Shaw (Christopher Burns) engage in armed conflict in Central Asia in the opening scenes before Hayward meets, romances and marries Safia (Anjali Bhimani), a black Moor.
A British spy in and around India, Safia sails to London to ask Hayward’s family to help her stop him from going on his highly dangerous mission for the RGS. She is rebuked by George’s mother (Lois Markle) and financier brother, Edward (David Bishins), but receives sympathy from Edward’s betrothed, Pru (Yvonne Woods) and from Martin (Bobby Steggert), Edward’s son.
Derek McLane’s set is divided into two parts: on one half an understated English drawing room and the other a simple room strewn with pillows that serves as multiple locations including a prison, a London apartment and a home for George and Safia. Latticed walls around the two locations are attractive, but while action choreographed by director Wilson Milam (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) across the two areas expedites scene transitions, the setting is confusing at times.
Essential to the play’s future success is greater chemistry between the actors and more emphasis on the story’s relation to contemporary geopolitical events in the Middle East.