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An early winter in Minneapolis

Theatre in the Round presents a chilling tale of Antarctic adventure in Terra Nova.

When I try to imagine the severe climate in Antarctica, I think back to one of the coldest winters I can remember in Minnesota, during 1996: After an ice storm, temperatures suddenly plummeted below zero. My Nissan was covered by a thick layer of impenetrable ice. Lock de-icer, a bucket of hot water, and a blow torch left me seeking more serious alternatives to opening my car after spending almost an hour in the bitter winds. In such a short period of time, even while wearing multiple layers of goose down and wool, my body began violently rejecting the vicious Minnesota weather.

While Minnesota winters are the most brutal I have ever experienced, I cannot possibly compare them to the horrific conditions stalwart explorers in Ted Tally’s play Terra Nova encountered on their journey to the South Pole in 1912. Their willingness to contest their physical limits and emotional capacity is fascinating. However, watching Theatre in the Round’s interpretation of this story may be even more intriguing.

Producing a compelling piece of theater with this sort of subject matter requires diligent attention to detail. To capture the physical hardship and the psychological torment endured on such a venture is a challenge most theaters would refuse to undertake, much less succeed at.

Terra Nova is a play about failure, in a sense. A team of Norwegian explorers, led by Roald Amundsen, and a team of English explorers, led by Robert Scott, raced to the South Pole in an effort to bring national pride to their respective countries. Terra Nova details the hardship endured by Scott and his men before reaching the South Pole and afterward when they discover that the Norwegians beat them there by a month. Scott and his men, while tormented by their defeat, pressed onward toward safety. Although on the 800-mile return trip they got within 11 miles of their depot, none of Scott’s crew would return home.

Basing his play on Scott’s journals and letters recovered from his dead body, Tally has constructed a tragic story exploring hubris as Scott’s staunch determination and folly leads to the death of his entire crew. Jim Pounds performance as Scott shows the character’s authentic determination, which he couples with moments of skepticism. We feel his sense of disappointment when, failing to be the first to reach the pole, he declares, “I feel like a ludicrous footnote in history.” Erik Steen plays the Norwegian team leader Amundsen, who appears throughout much of the play as an imaginary tormentor to Scott, mocking his methods throughout the expedition.

Scott’s wife Kathleen (Catherine Johnson) also interjects messages in his inner dialogue, helping him come to terms with his feeling of failure. Scott’s inner dialogues reflect his conflicting emotions: angst, pride, and insecurity. Ultimately, he resolves his superficial personal conflicts and deals with more pressing issues – the likelihood of his own death, for one.

With a cast of talented actors, Theatre in the Round presents a show that penetrates the surface of the ice: We feel the grief of a man with a misplaced goal, another man with a gangrenous foot, and a wife who waits eight months to find out that her husband is frozen solid in his tent.

Terra Nova plays through September 29 at Theatre in the Round, (612) 333-3010.

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