Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 2006
“To die will be an awfully big adventure.” – Sir James M. Barrie
It is this adventure, or at least the very beginnings of it, that Sutton Vane (1888-1963) explores in his 1923 play Outward Bound. That his vision is dated and very, very British is hardly a surprise. Vane lived and died an Englishman, and this play was written some years after he was invalided out of the British Army for shellshock following his service during World War I.
Because death is the one universal we all must face, and because it is shrouded in such deep mystery, Outward Bound was an immediate success once Vane finally got it on the boards in London in 1923. It crossed the Atlantic and had its first Broadway production in 1924 with an all-star cast. A film version starring Leslie Howard followed in 1933, and the play was successfully revived on Broadway in 1938. A 1944 film remake entitled Between Two Worlds starred John Garfield.
In the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s the play was frequently produced by schools, colleges and community theatres, but by mid-century it had fallen out of favor and languished on library shelves until a successful off-off Broadway revival was staged last year. Now the script is back in publication and Outward Bound will no doubt be making the rounds of educational, summer stock, and community theatres once again. This production at Ghent, directed by Daniel Region, is just the tip of the iceberg.
As the play opens, an ocean liner is setting sail with a remarkably short passenger list of seven and a crew consisting of exactly one steward named Scrubby (Mike Sanders). A young couple named Henry (Region) and Ann (Patricia Martin-Skiermont) seem to know something that the others don’t, but soon the alcoholic Tom Prior (Paul Murphy) begins to suspect the truth as well.
This is a “thriller” and therefore I must be careful not to give too much away, but I don’t think that it is any secret that the passengers on this voyage are all dead and the ship is bound for the afterlife. According to Scrubby they are headed for Heaven and Hell, because they are in fact the same place.
There is an Anglican clergyman aboard, the Reverend William Duke (Paco F. Serpico) and they are apparently head for the Anglican afterlife since the Examiner who comes on board once they dock is also a deceased Anglican cleric, the Reverend Frank Thomson (P.M. Carter).
Vane seeds the passenger list with a fairly broad cross-section of British society between the wars. There is a stuffy grand dame socialite Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Pat Naggiar), a pompous member of Parliament Mr. Lingley (Jack Harrell), and a sprightly cockney charwoman Mrs. Midget (Wendy Power Spielmann).
The publicity for this play frequently mentions Rod Serling (1924-1975) and his classic TV series The Twilight Zone but I am afraid I saw a stronger similarity to Gilligan’s Island. Seven people – three women and four men, including one married couple – find themselves stranded together, in this case on the “floating island” of a luxury liner, unable to make contact with the outside world. I have read statements indicating that Outward Bound was an inspiration to Serling, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sherwood Schwartz (1916- ) hadn’t seen a stage or film version of somewhere and tucked it into his brain-cells for later inspiration when creating his mid-1960’s sitcom. Now you may scold me for coming up with such far-fetched Baby Boomer babble, but during the course of a slow-moving three-hour play I had plenty of time to ponder such analogies.
I liked the set by Wolfgang Stockmeier. It made good use of the small stage at Ghent and had an attractive art deco feel with all the blonde wood and sleek lines. So I was surprised to come across a photo from the 2005 production at Urban Stages in New York City and see that the Ghent set was an almost exact copy. I guess the question has to arise: If the set was copied, were other aspects of the show an attempt to replicate the Urban Stages production? It is one thing to hang a reproduction Picasso on your wall, it is another thing altogether to try to BE Picasso. The former is possible and the latter is not.
But I had mixed feelings about this production long before I noticed the set duplication. Vane’s play is definitely dated. There is a line where Mrs. Cliveden-Banks makes a remark about black men in India that got quite a murmur of reaction at the opening night performance. I would venture a guess that in the original script the “N word” was used, since I am quite sure the gently politically correct term “black men” would not have been employed. The fact that this ship seems to take only British Anglicans to the afterlife would imply that the afterlife is segregated, not only by faith but by denomination and nationality. And I am sort of saddened by Vane’s implication that when we die we all still have corporal bodies. Bodies are such a bother. You are always having to feed or bathe or shave them. I realize that it is difficult to cast a play with living actors without bodies, but Vane implies that not only do we continue on in the flesh, but that such earthly delights as laundry, dishwashing, and the obligatory throwing of parties exist in this combined heaven and hell. If that is the case we all might as well keep living. On the other hand he does imply that there is good Scotch on board the ship…
So we have a dated and problematic script, a copy-cat set, and a cast of hard-working amateurs who, unsurprisingly, aren’t always up to the task at hand. Vane manages to inject some humor, mostly at the expense of the British class system, but misses many obvious jokes and questions that would arise in favor of the “thriller” aspect of the play. Therefore the characters whose job it is to poke fun at the classes fare better than those whose job it is to keep everything spooky-spooky, and the actors have correspondingly heavy or light burdens to bear.
Naggiar and Spielmann had the most fun as the very upper-crust and very lower-class Mesdames Cliveden-Banks and Midget. Spielmann was downright lovable throughout, while Naggiar had a tough time of it at the end when Vane gave her character a disappointing denouement that was poorly prefigured in the script and therefore unconvincing.
Harrell could have done more with the pompous wind-bagginess of Mr. Lingley, although he did do a nice job of dropping hints as to his characters dark secret so that his time before the Examiner was less of an implausible shock.
I was frankly disappointed that Vane allowed us to see the Examiner and that, at least in Region’s vision, he is just a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and a clerical collar. We are assured that the Examiner is not God, merely an underling sent to conduct the preliminaries, but still after all of the heavenly music that preceded Carter’s entrance I was expecting more. I guess I keep coming back to my disappointment in Vane’s pedestrian vision of the afterlife. The thought that not only will I still have to shave my armpits and wear a bra, but that God needs to wear a Panama hat to keep the sun off of His nose is very depressing.
Murphy seemed all at sea, literally, as Prior, a pivotal role that somehow wobbled as vigorously as Prior’s legs should have after drinking all that Scotch. But Prior is part of the spookiness, and therefore a much trickier part to play.
I wished that there had been something more other-worldly about Sanders portrayal of Scubby, especially considering what we learn about him at the close of the play. Region and Martin-Skiermont played the roles mostly deeply shrouded in mystery. While Region did a good job of stringing me along, guessing at his character’s mystery, Martin-Skiermont was completely unable to hold up her end of the angst. At the bitter end, where Vane foolishly tries to tell us that human love can conquer death, Martin-Skiermont merely whined when she should have howled, heaved, and collapsed I am SURE God doesn’t give anyone a second chance for whining!
As I said, the set looks great, and Ian Gulliver has done a bang-up job with the lights and sound design. The sound effects are crisp and poignant and do a good job of building the sense of suspense.
To top off all the troubles with this show, it runs three hours. Plays did run longer in the days before television reduced all of our attention spans to about three seconds, but I think a little tightening up of the pace could shave 10-15 minutes off of the run time and make a big difference. And it would give the audience less time to ponder who’s Ginger and who’s Gilligan…
Outward Bound runs weekends through February 11, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for children 10 and up. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006