“We should have succeeded,” reflects a tortured, defeated Robert Falcon Scott (Don Reilly), the British explorer who set out in 1911 to reach the South Pole before his Norwegian rival, Roald Amundsen. Author Ted Tally (an Oscar winner for adapting the script of “Silence of the Lambs”) then proceeds to prove Scott wrong in this ruggedly realistic, fact-based drama, showing how the deluded expedition leader courted failure through implacable pride and by-the-book British arrogance. “Terra Nova,” directed with unflinching insight by SCR artistic director Martin Benson, is an icily honest, harrowing tale of a man so swept up in playing an outdated gentleman’s game that he loses all sense of practical reality.
It’s easy to be alienated by Scott’s estimation of himself as “the pride of English manhood,” especially after he rejects the notion of dog-driven sleds and forces his four-man team to pull the sleds themselves. But Don Reilly’s many-layered portrayal also shows his genuine belief in the nobility of duty, honor and courtesy. He calls Amundsen (Preston Maybank) a barbarian because Amundsen plans to slaughter some of these expendable canines during his own, competitive South Pole quest and utilize them for food. Amundsen derisively responds, “Your game is treating dogs like gentlemen and gentlemen like dogs.”
What begins as optimism deteriorates into despair after one of Scott’s team, Evans (Tony Ward), is revealed to have a frostbitten hand that turns gangrenous and renders him useless. Ward offers a grimly accurate glimpse of an explorer’s obsessive nature when he admits he knew of the condition and hid it because he couldn’t bear not to reach the South Pole. Reilly’s Scott, in a similarly startling exchange, slaps Evans for leaving the remaining men lethally vulnerable.
From there, Evans slides into madness, and Ward makes his self-mutilation with a knife excruciatingly believable. Outspoken Oates (Robert Curtis Brown) loses his leg and Scott asks doctor Wilson (Michael James Reed) to divide an equal share of drugs among the survivors so they can commit suicide if they desire. It’s an unforgettable scene. Just as shattering is a masterfully acted confrontation between Oates and Evans when Oates, enraged that the injured man’s need for glory has jeopardized everyone’s survival, yanks Evans’ gangrenous arm and provokes a howl of unbearable pain.
Alleviating the agony of a relentlessly tragic chronicle is Chet Grissom’s lighthearted, beguiling Bowers. Another character intended to furnish levity is Scott’s wife Kathleen (Nina Landey). Landey (in glamorous costumes by Angela Balogh Calin that offer visually restful contrast to the functional outfits of the explorers) is refreshingly witty and graceful. Although her sequences are over-extended and dotted with cliches (“I loved you but I wasn’t in love with you”), she transcends the florid talk with a confident directness, challenging Scott — and the rest of us — to ponder about perilous expeditions in general by asking, “What value did it have?” and “Whose life did it enrich?”
Preston Maybank handles the play’s most difficult part, a hallucinatory embodiment of Scott’s conflicting thoughts, representing reason, support and harsh damnation. Maybank manages every kaleidoscopic mood with poise and cutting precision, hitting hard on the significant line, “Duty, sacrifice, honor … all very good on a full belly.”
Michael Roth’s sound effects could be heightened for maximum impact, but his spare music provides a quietly urgent pulse. Stark black and white photographs of the Terra Nova and the men belatedly reaching their destination add properly mournful flavor. Production’s most notable achievement is Benson’s skill at blending complicated time transitions without announcing them, as well as dipping seamlessly in and out of fantasy. His ability to mix these multiple, free-floating elements organically makes “Terra Nova” compulsively watchable.