Stage West’s ‘Antarctica’ goes to end of the earth for self-discoveries
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There are several mentions of “the end” in Mat Smart’s 2015 play “The Royal Society of Antarctica,” now having its regional premiere at Stage West in a simmering production directed by Lee Trull.

The setting is at the end of the world, with many of the characters having gone there to find answers. Something. An audiobook that central character Dee listens to comes to the end, although she constantly loops it back, not wanting to move on to another story. Relationships, and lives, end — as they do all over the world — but at McMurdo Station it seems different. Some of these characters are at their wits’ end; others refuse to arrive there.

There’s no end to speculation about why these characters have chosen to spend part of their lives in unforgiving terrain where, for the part of the year spanned in this three-act play (October through January), there is constant sunlight, right under that ozone hole.

Dee (Grace Montie) was the only person born at McMurdo and, having secured a janitorial position, returns to find out why her mother mysteriously disappeared. She joins returnees UT Tom (Michael Federico) and UT Tim (Drew Wall; UT stands for utility technician), FEMC worker/bartender Ace (Christopher Dontrell Piper), reclusive fuel tech Pam (Dana Schultes), and dining attendant Tamara (Kelly Stewart). Ruben Carrazana is Jake, a biology grad student new to Antarctica, and Christopher Lew is Miller, a Navy midshipman.

Smart’s play is captivating because of these off-kilter, Chekhovian characters that feel like people we know —or that we might be. Smart spent three months at McMurdo Station, which provided insight into the types of people there, as well as facts about the least-populated continent and the quirky details of living there. It says much about family, both blood and chosen.

In this staging, which is the second professional production since its Chicago debut, Trull detaches it from realism with his and N. Ryan McBride’s scenic concept that incorporates the artifice of stagecraft: a stage curtain, rigged backdrops, exposed wings and full use of the space, including aisles and the double doors on either side of the audience chamber. That also helps with denoting scene changes, as Smart’s lighting instructions (designed here by Aaron Johansen) indicate that there are no blackouts because of the 24-hour sun.

It’s a strong ensemble, led by Montie, who never loses sight of Dee’s curiosity and quest for answers about her mother, but also herself. Dee is treated like royalty by many of the characters — there are multiple meanings in the play’s title — and Montie keeps the character focused and down to earth.

“The Royal Society” smartly toys with the trope that all good things come to an end. Or do they?

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