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A CurtainUp Review
Further than the Furthest Thing
We is always losing everything. Everything is always being taken away from us. Not Francis. Francis is all we ever had. Is all is left, Bill. Go after him. Change his mind of it. Quick
--- Mill Lavarello, after her nephew voted against bringing a factory to their remote island to appease his uncle even though it meant the end of his dream of living on the island that's been his home but to also enjoy some of the rewards of a more enterprising, modern existence.
Dan Futterman & Jenny Sterlin
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Further than Furthest Thing is factional story telling in which the fiction builds facts into an intriguing if somewhat overplotted drama. Zinni Harris uses a fascinating real setting -- a remote island patterned on the British protectorate Tristan da Cunha in the middle of the Atlantic that is " further from the furthest thing in both directions".

The dangerous volcanic eruptions that prompted the 1961 evacuation of the Tristan da Cunanans (170 people descended from 7 sailors shipwrecked centuries earlier) to Southampton, serves as the dramatic jumpstart for the multi-facted story as told through five of the island's longtime residents: Bill Lavarrello (Robert Hogan) and his wife Mill (Jenny Sterlin); Francis Swain (Dan Futterman), the nephew they've raised since the death of his parents; Rebecca Rogers (Jennifer Dundas), the girl Francis loved but left to experience a more modern life style; and Mr. Hansen (Peter Gerety), the factory owner who befriended Francis and now wants to build a crawfish bottling factory on the island.

Though only tweny-nine years old Ms. Harris, who lives in Glasgow, has a longtime interest in the island and its people by way of photos and family anecdotes about her grandfather's several years as an Anglican priest on Tristan da Cunha. In applying her imagination to facts and family myths, she has forged a story that, though it tilts towards melodrama, is full of humor as well as sadness.

The colorful islanders are very different from anyone encountered along the highways and byways of our lives, but the playwright has nevertheless portrayed them as people with whom we can empathize. It may take a bit to get used to their dialect with its odd tenses and pronunciation (the authenticity and clear delivery no doubt abetted by dialect coat Stephen Gabis), but it doesn't take long to understand and like them -- and to become engaged in their story.

The play, which was previously produced to great acclaim in the playwright's native Glasgow and in London, has found a splendid American director and cast for its New York premiere. If anyone can be considered the star of the 5-member ensemble that represents the tight little island, it's Jenny Sterlin. As Mill, the actress whom I've never before seen in a leading role, Sterlin is the play's emotional switchboard, and the actress has invested the part with a radiant spirit. Her contagious, free-spirited humor is seen early on in the play when she jubilantly bring three "pinnawin haggs" (penguin eggs) into her humble kitchen and, after she predictably breaks two of them, grudgingly serves the only unbroken one to the stranger, Mr. Hansen, instead of the beloved nephew who's brought him home from a voyage abroad. With Mr. Hansen turning out to be a nimble fingered magician, that scene is not only a comic highlight but establishes a rapport between him and Mill and makes her receptive to his plans for building a crawfish bottling plant in which she would have a job. It is also the playwright's way of laying the groundwork for the upheavals to come and revelations of a history of broken dreams and hopes that have made life on this island less than the simple paradise it appears to be.

Terrific as Ms. Sterlin is, this is a fine ensemble. Robert Hogan, is enormously affecting as the Island's unofficial chaplain who is dead set against disturbing the simple life for which, as we will eventually learn, he has sacrificed his own inner spiritual tranquility. Peter Gerety is equally compelling as the outsider whose plans for industrializing the island foreshadow the rumbling natural disaster that will overtake the islanders. Dan Futterman ably delves into the role of the nephew who hardens his heart to the pull of his Island roots and the woman he loves (sensitively played by Jennifer Dundas) to follow his urge to move into the modern world.

The play's essential theme centers on the pain of being catapulted into exile, and Ms. Harris conveys this pain best and most poetically when Mill, on being told she can't go home again, sorrowfully lists her losses: "Is no more crawfish and Pinnawin H'eggs. Is the Queen now. And puddings. . . Is no more digging on the patches. Is train rides and baths. . . " The sorrows of exile also activate the darker and less idyllic memories of Island life and bring the two worlds to a climactic boil.

The design team assembled by Neil Pepe has succeeded in evoking the two very different yet analogous sets: In the first act, Loy Arcenas has created the barren yet free and beautiful volcanic island; in the second, he takes us to the barren and confining Southampton factory where Mr. Hansen has employed many of the exiles, with a cage-like wire enclosure at stage left that serves as an engine control room, a confessional and an unbearable prison cell. Scott Myers' original music and sound design links the rumblings of the volcano with the factory noises. Laura Bauer and Bob Tilley II have gotten the costumes just so, right down to the thick white socks knitted from green flax.

Further Than the Furthest Thing, originally three hours long, has been wisely trimmed by a half hour and could use a bit more tightening here and there. Despite this and its plot excesses, it teems with eloquence and colorful detail and marks a bright beginning for a promising young playwright.

Written by Zinnie Harris
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Jennifer Dundas, Dan Futterman, Peter Gerety, Robert Hogan and Jenny Sterlin.
Set Design: Loy Arcenas
Costume Design: Laura Bauer and Bob Tilley II
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design: Scott Myers.
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage 1 at City Center, 131 W. 55h St. (6th/7th), 212/581-1212

1/15/02; opening 2/05/02.
Tues-Sat at 8pm, Sat at 2:30 pm, Sun at 2:30 and 7pm -- $55.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 2nd press preview.
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