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Theatre in Review: Thunder Rock (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Jed Peterson, Hannah Sharafian. Photo: Vadim Goldenberg.

The folks at Metropolitan Playhouse specialize in dramatic rarities -- they really know how to dig them up -- and, this time out, they have a fascinating find in Thunder Rock. A product of the Group Theatre in its sunset days -- it opened at the end of 1939 -- it lasted only three weeks, under the direction of Elia Kazan and featuring a cast that included Luther Adler, Lee J. Cobb, Ruth Nelson, and Frances Farmer. It's far from a perfect work, but the playwright, Robert Ardrey, had a richly theatrical imagination: Thunder Rock is a ghost story tied to a philosophical debate about the search for meaning in a world gone mad, and, for two of its three acts, it pursues its argument in a strikingly original way. Even when it starts to falter, Alex Roe's tautly directed, incisively acted production ensures that it remains highly watchable.

The action unfolds on "a half-acre of rock in the middle of Lake Michigan," where David Charleston works as a lighthouse keeper. The job is a lonely one -- his only human contact occurs once a month, when a Coast Guard inspector shows up for a monthly look-see -- and that suits Charleston just fine. He has no interest in socializing and feels no need for books or newspapers; he even tries to refuse delivery of a regulation radio. For all he cares, the outside world can go hang itself.

Flanning, the inspector, never finds a detail out of place, which makes him uneasy; to him, Charleston's on-the-job perfection is unsettling, and he doesn't mind who knows it. And, really, he may be onto something. The job is a strange one for Charleston, who once was a star journalist for the Daily News and the author of a best-selling book about world politics. But, covering the Spanish Civil War, something broke inside him, and now, in August 1939, as Hitler and Mussolini go about their satanic business, he wants nothing to do with the conflict that everyone knows is coming. His reasoning is simple: "I couldn't be objective, I hadn't any future reporting. I knew, likewise, I hadn't any future crusading...Society's got no worse enemy than a cynic. I took this job to put myself out of circulation."

To a modern audience, Charleston may come across as self-involved, a proto-slacker whose weltschmerz has a slightly wash-and-wear quality -- having been disappointed by the world, he has seemingly packed up his toys and gone home -- and it's a pity that Ardrey wasn't more explicit about the horrors that have corroded his lead character's soul. Then again, audiences in 1939 would need little reminding about the triumph of fascism in Spain (and its human cost), and, at the Metropolitan Playhouse, Jed Peterson's performance goes a long way toward clarifying why Charleston feels that his only reasonable option is to shun the world. His hair styled rather too long for the era, a permanently wounded look in his eyes, his voice worn to an edge that brooks no contradiction, he is clearly ailing spiritually. (In a funny way, his resolution is a kind of agnostic spin on the Benedict Option, the notion, put forth by the conservative religious pundit Rod Dreher, that contemporary Christians should absent themselves from politics and live in retreat from the world.)

Having thoroughly established Charleston as a moral recluse, Ardrey throws a curveball that takes the action in another direction. The lighthouse, we learn, was erected on the site of the 1849 wreck of a Great Lakes ship headed to Wisconsin; everyone on board -- the crew and sixty immigrant passengers -- was killed. In his solitude, Charleston pours through the ship's log, which was recovered and has been conveniently left on the premises; combining research and guesswork, he mentally reinvents the doomed voyagers, creating for himself a kind of imaginary version of pioneer America. The stage is occupied by Briggs, a roguish Englishman whose wife is about to give birth for the tenth time; the Viennese Dr. Kurtz, his astringent daughter, Melanie, and his wife, Anne Marie, lost in memories of Paris; and Miss Kirby, a sharp-tongued advocate for women's rights. All of them are aware of Charleston's presence; none of them grasp that they are phantoms. In any case, they provide ample fodder for his dreams of feisty immigrants sallying forth to embrace an America filled with promise.

Also present is the ship's captain, Joshua Stuart, who, alone among them, understands that they are products of Charleston's imagination, a privilege that allows him to talk back to their host. Fed up with Charleston's self-serving visions, Stuart forces him to see his passengers as they really were -- bitter products of their times, lumbered by ignorance, prejudice, and unchecked capitalism, and incapable of believing that the future holds anything better. Jolted by this dose of truth, Charleston finds himself making anguished arguments that go against his hard-core misanthropy.

In a way, Thunder Rock doesn't make sense, especially when his visitors revolt against him, refusing to be dispatched from the premises. (He is, after all, talking to himself. And what are we to make of the moments when he and Melanie eye each other flirtatiously?) But Ardrey puts forth his fantasy proposition with such skill that one doesn't really question it. Perhaps even more to the point, given our daily reports of nuclear threats, a degraded democracy, and looming climate disaster, the disputes that rattle Thunder Rock have a surprising immediacy.

It helps that Roe's company takes the script at face value, playing it with considerable force. They include David Murray Jaffe as the Captain, looking on clinically as Charleston's self-assurance crumbles; Howard Pinhasik as Dr. Kurtz, fleeing from a devastating career setback he doesn't want to discuss; Teresa Kelsey as Miss Kirby, who has paid a terrible price for her convictions; and Jamahl Garrison-Lowe as the inspector's pilot -- also Charleston's old friend -- who mounts the play's most vigorous case for a life of engagement. (Hannah Sharafian's skeptical Melanie and Susanna Frazer's nostalgic Anne Marie are also solid contributions.) This is also one of the better-designed Metropolitan productions, too, thanks to Vincent Gunn's snug lighthouse interior, Sidney Fortner's collection of costumes from two centuries, Christopher Weston's lighting, and Michael Hardart's sound.

The weakness of Thunder Rock -- and, most likely, the reason for its short original run -- is the third act, which, after nearly two hours of close argument, tumbles over into speechmaking, with a boost of uplift. As Brooks Atkinson noted at the time, "the last act has nothing to add but platitudes to the second-act findings," concluding that it is "no more dramatic than a chauvinistic editorial." I can't put it better than that. But, even at its weakest, the play touches on a question that seems especially pertinent right now.

With this production and its 2018 revival of Shadow of Heroes, Metropolitan Playhouse has reclaimed Ardrey, an intriguing if oddball figure whose fitful Broadway career was followed by a long, successful run in Hollywood and a late-career swerve into scientific writing with a specialty in paleoanthropology. (He is surely worth the attention of an intrepid biographer.) Even with its thunder muted in the last act, it is far more than a curio; as Ardrey understood, the times in which one dwells are always terrible, and hope is usually a commodity rarer than gold. -- David Barbour

(27 January 2020)

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