After a first act dogged by artifice and mired in its own wordplay, Eric Overmyer’s comedy of language and liberation, “On the Verge (or The Geography of Yearning),” finally comes alive in the second half when its three time-traveling Victorian women land in 1955. When the trio of intrepid global explorers arrive at their most exotic place of all — Eisenhower-era America — they discover not only a strange new world but themselves.
But getting there is not half the fun. The first act presents the three adventurous women not as real people but as archetypes. For these uncommon women, petticoats and parasols do not stand in the way of exploring the world (and often are an asset). But their pluck and perseverance quickly become a bore.
Helmed by Tazewell Thompson, making his bow as Westport a.d. (succeeding Joanne Woodward), the dames and their linguistic bantering soon grow wearisome, especially as acted in a stiff, stylized and overemphasized manner. Soon it’s the audience that’s feeling this is going to be one long trip.
But then act two arrives and the play and production turn around when these heroines find themselves smack dab in the middle of the future. Suddenly faced with conflicts, not just concepts, the women come alive.
Overmyer has become known for his work on TV with such realistic, ripped-from-the-headlines shows as “Law & Order” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” But with this early-’80s play, he shows a literate and fanciful side.
While Overmyer does some rich exploring of his own as he looks at women through the ages, it’s not clearly convincing that as the women become uncorseted, they get more empowered. Still, the play embraces the resilient and self-determined spirit of womanhood as the characters find their own happy path to travel, and that’s still something to celebrate.
Cast mostly navigates the words and whimsy well, and all blossom beautifully in the second half. In this co-production with D.C.’s Arena Stage, Susan Bennett is a delight as Alex, the youngest of the trio, who urges the others to favor pants over petticoats. (Her stream-of-consciousness free association, which bubbles up throughout the play, is wonderfully batty.)
Molly Wright Stuart possesses steel, grace and vulnerability as the more conservative Fanny. However, Laiona Michelle plays an overly enunciated single note as Mary, leader of the troupe. Tom Beckett proves endlessly resourceful in a variety of comic roles, from the Abominable Snowman to a ’50s hipster.
Carrie Robbins imaginatively costumes the women, first as exquisite Gibson girls and then as a variety of ’50s women who like both Ike and rock ‘n’ roll. (She also creates a witty, plush-to-the-touch outfit for Sasquatch.)
Donald Eastman’s set is bare bones in the first act, save for Robert Wierzel’s colored lights, becoming more expansive for the second. But by this time, the aud needs little help to engage in the action, rejoining the journey as the women embrace the future, their brave new world and themselves.