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“The White Road” a thrilling expedition to Antarctica

These days, if you have the money, you can sign up for a cruise to Antarctica that comes complete with luxury accommodations, scholarly lectures, island stops, penguin and whale-sightings, and the security of high-tech gear and sophisticated navigational instruments.

This certainly was not the case when, in 1914, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton set his sights on crossing Antarctica from sea to sea by way of the South Pole.

In 1911, Roald Amundsen made history by winning the race to that pole. Shackleton, with two major expeditions under his belt, was determined to make a mark of his own on the largely uncharted continent. Yet his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which lasted from 1914 to 1917 (just as World War I was raging back home in Europe), turned into a nightmarish ordeal that could have been fatal for all involved, but showed just exactly the stuff he (and his men) were made of.

That is the subject of Karen Tarjan’s thrilling play, “The White Road,” now receiving a wonderfully vivid, powerfully physical, often blackly comic world premiere by Irish Theatre of Chicago – a production that features ingenious direction by Robert Kauzlaric, prize-worthy design, and a cast of 10 actors who instantly make you believe they could have been among Shackleton’s original recruits.

‘THE WHITE ROAD’

Highly recommended

When: Through June 13

Where: Irish Theatre Chicago at

The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: $26 – $30

Info:website.irishtheatreofchicago.org

Run time:2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

Shackleton’s ship, the aptly named Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed before the crew could reach land. With no other possibility for survival, his men camped on the sea ice until it disintegrated, then launched lifeboats to reach Elephant Island and, ultimately, the inhabited island of South Georgia – a perilous voyage of many hundred of nautical miles. Though they suffered from frost-bite, hunger, exhaustion and near madness, most of the men made it through the ordeal, with Shackleton setting a remarkable example of understated bravery and fierce but calm determination.

Tarjan, who demonstrates great flair for spinning an adventure yarn, gets things off to a memorable start with the recruiting process, as Shackleton (an easily patrician and abidingly stoic Paul Dunckel) invites a few veterans to join him, and then questions newcomers in the most unorthodox ways.

“How do you sleep?,” he asks them. “What do you dream about ?” It turns out these are just the right character-revealing questions. The ship is then loaded with dogs (the focus of a couple of superb scenes later on) and a cat. Supplies are loaded. And sails are raised.

On board are Shackleton’s friends, the exceptionally gifted navigator, Worsley (Kevin Theis), and the documentary photographer Hurley (Neal Starbird), as well as the naive and poetic young stowaway, Blackborrow (the wholly endearing Gage Wallace). They are joined by the gifted carpenter, McNeish (Steve Herson); the eccentric keeper of the larder, Ordes-Lees (Joseph Stearns); tough-guy laborer, Vincent (Stephen Walker); and stalwarts McEllroy (Nicholas Bailey); Crean (Matthew Isler); and Wild (Michael McKeogh). All are outstanding.

The cast of Karen Tarjan’s play,”The White Road,” now in its world premiere by Irish Theatre of Chicago. (Photo: Jackie Jasperson)
The cast of Karen Tarjan’s play,”The White Road,” now in its world premiere by Irish Theatre of Chicago. (Photo: Jackie Jasperson)

The dazzling set design is the work of Ira Amyx and Merje Veski, with costumes by Allison Amidei., lighting by Julian Pike and projections by Smooch Medina that join to create an ideally icy and turbulent world. Victoria Deiorio’s sound design and original music is stormy enough to make you reach for a life raft.

Ironically enough, another superb play about this region, “The Royal Society of Antarctica,” is running through May 24 at The Gift Theatre, and offers a zany contemporary look at life among the residents of a scientific station at the South Pole. Catch them both. They’re as good as any extreme adventure vacation, and a whole lot safer and cheaper.

The cast of Karen Tarjan’s play, “The White Road,” in its world premiere by Irish Theatre of Chicago. (Photo: Jackie Jasperson)
The cast of Karen Tarjan’s play, “The White Road,” in its world premiere by Irish Theatre of Chicago. (Photo: Jackie Jasperson)