A major performance from Alun Armstrong goes so far as to ennoble “Mappa Mundi,” a decent enough but hardly inspired piece of writing that is invigorated no end by its leading man. The fact that Armstrong stepped into the role at a very late stage following the departure, due to illness, of original star Ian Holm redoubles the achievement of a portrait of impending mortality that is impish, ruthless and emotionally rending in turn. Nearly two decades younger than his role as a cranky 72-year-old paterfamilias, the map-collecting Jack, Armstrong is near definitive playing one of those people who — as T.S. Eliot wrote in another context — has measured out his life and found it wanting. Indeed, it’s one of the running arguments of the play that the book-keeper Jack has scant time for the acting profession in which his 45-year-old son, Michael (Tim McInnerny), has carved a none too wildly exciting career. If only, one is tempted to reply, the real-life Jacks of this world ever allowed themselves to see acting on the level of Armstrong’s, which has the dual effect of replicating experience and enriching it, as well.
I can’t imagine anyone not responding to a character who elicits our sympathy without ever particularly asking for it as Jack maps out a prevailing sense of futility — of the road not taken — that at times recalls Armstrong’s fiercely poignant approach several years back at this same address to Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. And like the often crotchety and confused Willy, Jack isn’t a bad man, just a blinkered one, a Northerner drawn to maps of the world and yet insular enough culturally to resent the fact that his daughter Anna (Lia Williams, in furious form), a successful lawyer, is marrying someone black (Patrick Robinson’s Sholto).
For Jack, an ideal existence would be a life spent eating scones. Instead, the reality of his daily routine is a series of short, sharp verbal jabs both at and from his kids en route to the landscape that is death, which no one can chart for sure. (The play takes its title from the actual Mappa Mundi, the 13th-century English artifact on view in Hereford Cathedral.)
Jack is so complete a figure, and so thoroughly realized in Bill Alexander’s empathetic staging, that one is willing to overlook some of the more irritating and burdensome aspects of a script that could seem awfully soggy in lesser hands. It can’t come as much of a surprise to hear that Jack will be awakened from his racial complacency — though it requires rather more of a leap of faith to license in this context the United Colors of Benetton dance that constitutes “Mappa Mundi’s” fairly New Age-y close. (It’s difficult to imagine any other theater beside the National with the resources to allow six dancers to buttress a cast for a mere two scenes.)
Just as Stephenson shows the past bearing down on the present, so, too, does her narrative chart a far more complex racial history to Europe than such decidedly English types as Jack would ever sanction. The author’s point, richly intriguing in itself, pushes the plot down some fairly incredible side alleys, including the second-act revelation of an awful secret from Jack that owes more to dramatic contrivance than to the play’s largely elegant chronicling of one slow-moving and yet quick-witted man’s subtle reckoning with death.
Ruari Murchison’s pleasing set — a walled garden that picks up on the verdant design theme in the Cottesloe dating back at least as far as “Humble Boy” — suggests an urban oasis that “Mappa Mundi” goes on to explode: Stephenson, the author of such London-to-New York transplants as “The Memory of Water” and “An Experiment With an Air Pump,” is particularly good on the prickly ebb and flow within families (what Jack calls “the scratchy stuff”), not least between people whose discontent with one another arises out of their similarities, not differences. (For all the sharpness he directs at his thespian son, Jack clearly has more in common with Michael than with the careerist Anna.) “Mappa Mundi” widens its focus to include a local cleric, Father Ryan (the ever-entertaining James Hayes), who has lost the faith — quite why is never made clear — but not before Jack conveniently gains the appreciation of particle physics necessary to grant the play its closing line.
By that point, you may begin to resist the play’s habit of overelaborating its concerns (“They’re just starting out, and I’m just leaving,” says Jack, as if we hadn’t already noticed that the life cycle within the play is set to continue), just as Jack himself seems virtually subsumed by the “what ifs” of the other paths he could have trod: “There’s not much applause in book-keeping” is his assessment of the one he ended up on. But even if “Mappa Mundi” keeps drawing conclusion after conclusion for us, nothing can dilute the full impact of the abiding mystery embodied by Armstrong, here playing a man whose family is busy protecting him from death even as those darting eyes are inviting in the darkness.