Arctic tale digs into the explorer’s state of mind

By Ben Rossi

For me, stories about great explorers always bring to mind the famous lines of Dante’s Inferno about Ulysses. Exhorting his crew to keep rowing toward the sunrise, he sees a heavenly mountain in the distance. But that’s all he ever sees, because in an instant the sea becomes a storming cauldron and his ship is swallowed whole. It is this mad longing for worldly and transcendent glory that defines the nobility of the explorer.

Indeed, A Big Blue Nail, a flawed but fascinating play at Victory Gardens Theater, begins with a reading of Tennyson’s Ulysses and takes as its subject the famous American explorer Robert Peary in his quest to be the first man to reach the North Pole. Yet it is not with elegiacal solemnity and sympathetic grandeur that Nail portrays Peary’s pursuit of glory. Rather, Peary’s ambitions lay waste to his humanity, dominating his life and leaving him physically and spiritually desolate. But underneath it all there remains that stirring spirit of adventure and possibility, powerfully attractive no matter how destructive.

Nail opens with Peary’s partner and onetime friend Matthew Henson arriving at his house on an island off Maine at Peary’s invitation. We learn that the two men have a long and fraught history: Henson, a black man, played a key role in Peary’s conquest of the Pole, but was never recognized publicly either by Peary or anyone else. Henson has come to ask Peary for the approbation which he has never before received. Larry Neumann, Jr., is fantastic as Peary. As soon as he speaks, the blood starts flowing in the play’s veins. Only after Peary’s character is established does Anthony Fleming III’s Henson, too, come alive.

We are immediately drawn into Peary’s surreal mind: A hypersomniac, he spends most of the play dreaming. Director and set designer Loy Arcenas has created a stark world of shifting white platforms and sheets of textured cloth to represent this dream world, with powerful sidelights heightening the drama. Peary’s dreams are inhabited by a troop of Inuit shamans, a naked woman representing his future, and a devil boy. They compel him to relive his expeditions and moral failures. Through a series of vignettes we witness Peary’s ambitions creep toward obsession as he tries again and again to reach the vaunted Pole.

All this dreaming can get rather tiresome, despite the lovely disrobed figure of Bethanny Alexander as the future. Some of the scenes just lay flat and go nowhere. We don’t know enough about Peary’s psychology early in the play to make sense of all the portentous speeches and mystical jabber, and the symbolism is laid on pretty thick. I felt sorry for Alexander as she declared, “I represent your future.”

Along the same lines, I took exception to the character of Tupi, Peary’s Inuit valet/scheming demon known as a “Tupilaq.” In the first place, his status is unclear: Is he a real person or a phantom? No one else seems to notice him. And again the symbolism is chunk-style: Tupi leaps on a trunk and declares, “I am your desire.” Thirteen-year-old Scott Baitty, Jr., plays Tupi, and while I hate to knock a kid down, it isn’t too harsh to say that giving a child actor a lot of exposition is not usually a good idea.

The play picks up in the second half, when more time is given for Peary to speak and for his relationship with Henson to develop. Fleming and Neumann have an appealing and credible rapport despite some stiff dialogue, and Peary’s soliloquies tell us so much about his psychology that the return of his dream demons seems superfluous. As characters, real and imaginary, congregate on the stage, the line between dream and reality is blurred. Peary is slipping into a world of illusion. But illusion is the natural element of the explorer: Peary declares, “The North Pole is nothing, just a mathematical point; it has no length, no breadth….”

A world explorer himself and major black talent, playwright Carlyle Brown seems to have found a story that encapsulates his life and art. But while A Big Blue Nail will undoubtedly be described as a play about race, it is really about what it means to be an explorer and what explorers actually discover. Not surprisingly, we learn that explorers discover themselves, and this self-knowledge can be a terrifying thing. The explorer is in a constant state of dreaming, pulled by a profound desire to achieve exactly what he cannot, and to fulfill his potential to the utmost and far beyond. It is this quality that makes A Big Blue Nail interesting despite its faults, and Henson’s search for dignity is a parallel pursuit of that same dream refracted through the prism of race.