Jennifer Dundas and Jenny Sterlinin Further Than the Furthest Thing(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Dundas and Jenny Sterlin
in Further Than the Furthest Thing
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Perhaps it's something in the winter wind, but Zinnie Harris's Further Than the Furthest Thing is the second play in a week to examine the gnarled issue of exile and return. The first was Athol Fugard's Sorrows and Rejoicings, in which South African exile Dawid Olivier languishes in London for 16 years, arriving home only 29 days before his death. Harris's play concerns the inhabitants of Tristan de Cunha, who were removed from their remote South Atlantic Ocean soil in 1961 just prior to a volcanic eruption. They were taken to Southampton, where they didn't do as poorly as did Olivier in London, but neither did they do well enough to decide to stay on after their yearlong layover.

Their uneven reception in Southhampton is only part of the story that Harris tells with grim effectiveness in the five-character Further Than the Furthest Thing, a story of how people can love their land even if--or, perhaps, because--it is as far-flung a dot on the globe as Tristan de Cunha. The playwright tells the story in the local dialect, which is not that different from Cockney in sound and syntax, although the lilt is something else again. The islanders put an "h" in front of any words that begin with a vowel, as in "h'eggs" and "h'outside." They pronounce "penguins" as "pen-ou-wins." They tend to use the verb "is" no matter whether the preceding noun is singular or plural--thus, "I is not seeing how they is bad luck, they is only an h'egg."

This takes some getting used to, but not much. And as Harris manipulates the language, she gives it the melodic cadence of an old folk ballad; on the page, her dialogue is set like free-form verse. It's a harsh ballad she sings: Riffing on what she's heard about her grandfather, an Anglican priest who was sent to Tristan de Cunha, she weaves in a secondary tale of mystery, guilt and redemption. The play is exotic in a rough-woolens kind of way, like the Tristan de Cunha population in their woolen undergarments.

The matriarchal figure of Further Than the Furthest Thing is Mill Lavarello (Jenny Sterlin), whose husband Bill (Robert Hogan) is the official spiritual leader, the one who does the local baptizing. (During the play's atmospheric prologue, Bill is seen in silhouette, skinny dipping in a rock pool near where the volcano stirs to ominous life.) The others in the play are the Lavarellos' nephew, Francis Swain (Dan Futterman); his girlfriend, Rebecca Rogers (Jennifer Dundas); and Mr. Hansen, a government agent who has ostensibly come to the island to build factories to handle the primary local resource, crayfish.

Harris's first act, in which Francis returns from a trip abroad with Mr. Hansen, is given over to establishing the indigenous mood. Mill and Bill resist any notion of change; Francis, encountering a pregnant Rebecca, tries to win back the love he tossed aside to go in search of better prospects. The act ends with Rebecca's miscarriage and Bill's unexpected reaction to it. Apparently, the determined and conscientious Bill has something of a bad conscience.

The second act unfolds entirely in Southampton, where the characters are awkwardly settling in. They take menial jobs, change their dress habits, and continue to feel like outsiders. They think only of returning to Tristan de Cunha--until they're informed by Mr. Hansen that the volcano has destroyed everything on the island. Then they learn that the island has not been not only decimated but also appropriated as a bomb-testing site--and that's only one of the secrets that come to light. The results of their delay in returning home involve Bill intimately, but the particulars aren't the kind that should be divulged in a review.

Robert Hogan and Jenny Sterlin inin Further Than the Furthest Thing(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Robert Hogan and Jenny Sterlin in
in Further Than the Furthest Thing
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Harris trenchantly transmits her fascination with the chosen subject matter. For those caught up in the continuing debate over whether cultural achievements are absolute or relative, here's a compelling new perspective. Do the islanders lag behind as far as socialization goes, or are they just different? The depth of Mill's humanity strongly suggests the latter view. (Incidentally, in the second act, the staunch Mill has a monologue about what she has had to get accustomed to in her new surroundings. During the course of it, she points out how little things mean a lot. It's a jaw-droppingly wonderful interlude.) In portraying the Tristan de Cunha dilemma, however, Harris has imagined a sequence of events--those concerned with Bill's past-- that border on the melodramatic. It's as if she felt that the topic she chose to probe wasn't sufficiently theatrical, so she contrived something more volatile, but what she has wrought plays as overwrought.

Still, whether the demands are natural or inflated, the actors are up to them, thanks in part to the sensitive and efficient direction of Neil Pepe. Jenny Sterlin, thin and hawk-nosed, makes Mill's fortitude and her feel for tradition manifest. She's also cleverly clumsy in the first act when called on to handle three of those valuable pen-ou-win h'eggs. Robert Hogan's Bill is properly stoic. Dan Futterman gets to the heart of Francis's divided longings. Rebecca, as Jennifer Dundas molds her, is a combination of uncertainty and self-possession. Peter Gerety lends Mr. Hansen the understanding but compromised air that some mid-level Enron employees might have been exuding over the last few months.

The section of volcanic mountain provided by set designer Loy Arcenas for Further Than the Furthest Thing is mighty and mighty convincing; Laura Bauer and Bobby Tilley II seem to have looked at the right National Geographic photographs in readying the production's native costumes; James F. Ingalls is the deft lighting designer; and Scott Myers has come up with the complementary original music and sound design.