Some people reflect on history and wistfully wonder if they might have been born in the wrong period. The three Victorian lady travelers in Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning, playing at WingSpan Theatre Company at Dallas’ Bath House Cultural Art Center from October 4 – 20, explore the future and end up finding where they belong.
The three characters, Mary, Fanny and Alexandra, are based on real Victorian explorers. “These women were the rock stars of their day,” Susan Sargeant, producing artistic director of the theater and director of the play, said. Mary Kingsley was an English explorer, famous for her travels through West Africa and her extensive writings about African culture. Fanny Bullock Workman, born in Massachusetts, was a travel writer who explored the Himalayas extensively and was one of the first professional female mountaineers. Alexandra David-Néel, the French spiritualist and writer, started life as an opera singer and eventually steeped herself in Tibetan culture, converting to Buddhism.
For these intellectually curious women, exploration was an escape from society’s expectations. “It presented an opportunity for Victorian women with brains and ambitions and aspirations that didn’t want to be corseted tightly into the restraints of who society said a woman should be,” Sargeant said.
Overmyer combined aspects of these three Victorians to create characters determined to explore “Terra Incognita” and end up discovering the future with its puzzling gadgets, strange language and challenging wardrobe. As they encounter the eccentricities of history, they scientifically study this new culture. “What I admire about them is their openness and awe for what they’re experiencing,” Sargeant said.
The characters make up a trifecta of humanity: mind, body and spirit. Mary is the ultimate explorer and scientist, focused on her career and writing ambitions. “That’s just what she did: explore,” Marisa Diotalevi, who plays Mary, said. “She hasn’t left anything at home. Her deal is going out there and finding new things, figuring things out and writing about them and learning about everything.”
Even her fellow travelers are part of Mary’s research. “I feel like for Mary, who is the explorer, that having these two to travel with is almost an exploration in itself. They are almost another subject that she can explore, that she can discover. They are part of the adventure,” Diotalevi said.
Fanny is the only married character and the most conservative of the ladies. “She’s more of the quintessential repressed Victorian woman, but she’s a romantic at heart,” Jennifer Kuenzer, who plays Fanny, said. “When she leaves, she leaves because what’s at home isn’t right. She’s looking for where she fits in. She’s looking for that sort of fulfillment and she’s embracing sensuality.”
Alexandra is the creative soul. “She’s the mystic in the play. She’s the youngest of the characters and the ethereal one,” Barrett Nash, who plays Alexandra, said. “She’s looking for some form of magic, some form of mystery, something to believe in and that’s what her ultimate trajectory is.”
As they encounter the future, the future transforms the explorers. Fanny finds love and happiness in the 1950s. “When she meets this man and she recognizes this part of herself, she yearns to discover more about herself and her place in this life she chose,” Kuenzer said.
Alexandra investigates spiritual and artistic growth. “Alex is yearning ultimately to be understood. She’s a lyricist, an artist, and she finds a place where that is celebrated as opposed to condemned or thought weird. She’s looking for an outlet to express herself,” Nash said.
Mary is determined to keep moving forward in time. “By the end, Mary is yearning for the future, for the next journey. I think she starts out yearning for the information, for discovery,” Diotalevi said.
Mary’s yearning for the future becomes visionary. “There’s a difference between reacting to the time you’re in and seeing the time ahead, having prophetic sight ahead of you and knowing it going to happen before it even does,” Sargeant said.
The future is not something these explorers fear. Instead, they find hope, contentment and unknown adventure. “You cannot resist the future. It is futile,” Nash said. “You must embrace it with all your heart.”