In “Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer,” the sun glaring off a glacier doesn’t just blind you, it makes you feel like someone is “poking you in the eyes with a hot stick.” Pack ice at the bottom of the world isn’t just uneven, it’s like “a 14-year-old boy’s face, coming out all over the place.” Details like these make Aidan Dooley’s solo show, about the real-life Irishman who explored the South Pole three times between 1901 and 1916, a banquet for the ears. Words create adventure that’s just as vivid as the special effects in a Hollywood bonanza.
For every description of expeditions going wrong — a naval officer’s teeth turning black with scurvy, a man’s face getting slashed by frostbite — Dooley includes a rousing aside about whipping down a mountain on a sled, or steering a lifeboat through a blizzard. The character is endearing because the horrors of his South Pole journeys haven’t quenched his excitement about what he did there. He still sounds awed that he’s lived such a life.
Ultimately, Crean’s humility defines the play. He was an inarguable hero — even receiving Britain’s Albert Medal for saving two of his fellow explorers. But Dooley keeps him talking reverentially about his commanding officers, the iconic Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
This means Scott and Shackleton become the epic heroes while Crean remains an average guy. When he describes his death-defying feats, it’s easier to imagine them happening to us, and that relatability makes his tale more engrossing.
Dooley, who also directs and designed sets and costumes, brings similar folksiness to his performance. Still in character, he often stops to ask audience members what they think about the show, and his easygoing charm makes the interruptions feel natural.
Of course, he ought to know how to sell his material by now. He’s been touring it around the world since 2003, including a stop at the New York Intl. Fringe Festival. And while an outside director could smooth some rough patches — Dooley speaks so quickly that he can trip over his words — his acting is largely as polished as his script.
Visual touches raise the show beyond a simple monologue. When Crean describes the cocoon of clothing you need at the South Pole, he puts on every layer, and the mound of costume pieces complements the loneliness of the set. Before a blue-black curtain dotted with small lights, our hero stands on a small blanket. He has a lantern and a bag, and there’s a sled hanging mid-air behind him, but otherwise, the stage is empty and black.
Swaddled in his clothes and isolated on stage, Crean becomes as much a universal metaphor for personal struggle as a storyteller. Like most people, he wandered into a cold, lonesome world, and he had to fight to survive. Despite his suffering, though, he emerged with his spirits high.