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‘The Royal Society of Antarctica’ a sensational exploration of contemporary lives

Do not be fooled by the formal title of Mat Smart’s “The Royal Society of Antarctica,” the altogether world-class world premiere play that has just arrived at the Gift Theatre.

Smart’s play — an immensely touching, quirky, tragicomic surprise that features a dream cast under the exemplary direction of John Gawlik — is set at McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic research center where more than a thousand people live under the most isolated and challenging conditions. But “The Royal Society” makes only periodic references to the historic competing expeditions that attempted to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century under the leadership of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, or to the society that celebrates them.

Rather, it homes in on a group of scientists, technicians and menial workers who may or may not have been wildly eccentric even before they arrived at the South Pole. And not only do the three acts and three hours of the play’s running time move like a flash, but you leave the theater — where it is being brought to life by a one-in-a-million cast that is so good you have to believe Smart had each of these actors in mind when he was writing — wishing there were several more acts to come. (Note to Hollywood: This play has all the seeds of a fabulously edgy sitcom, and only Smart should or could write it.)

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‘THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF ANTARCTICA’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through May 24

Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: $25-$35

Info: (773) 283-7071

http://www.thegifttheatre.org

Run time: 3 hours with two intermissions

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At its core, “The Royal Society” is about a daughter’s expedition in search of the mother she never knew. But the play exists on so many levels and is such a goofy, painful, honest exploration of the relationships between men and women, parents and children, man and nature, and the human capacity for dealing with (or being driven off the deep end by) social isolation that any single description is absurdly limiting.

When Dee (Aila Peck) arrives to work as a janitor at the icy cold, light-blinding McMurdo Station, she is something of an instant celebrity — “the princess.” As it happens, she was born there 24 years earlier, the child of a father still mourning for his wife — a woman whose body was never found, and who died in Antarctica of either accidental or self-inflicted causes.

Brian Keys and Aila Peck in "The Royal Society of Antarctica." (Photo: Claire Demos)

Brian Keys and Aila Peck in “The Royal Society of Antarctica.” (Photo: Claire Demos)

 

Not surprisingly, Naperville native Smart did serious research for this play, signing on as a janitor at McMurdo for three months. And he has devised quite a cast of characters to populate the Quonset hut-like barracks of the place.

There is Tamara (Brittany Burch, who all but steals the show), who has signed on as a janitor to escape a dead-end life that includes an abusive fiance. A good-time girl who drinks heavily, she has hot (hilarious) sex with a zany yet serious-minded resident technician, UT Tim (Jay Worthington).

UT Tom (Paul D’Addario), Tim’s older co-worker, has been in love with field technician Pam (Lynda Newton) for years. But Pam — who actually knew Dee’s mom — can’t commit, even when Tom offers her a different future.

Paul D'Addario and Lynda Newton in "The Royal Society of Antarctica." (Photo: .....)

Paul D’Addario and Lynda Newton in “The Royal Society of Antarctica.” (Photo: Claire Demos)

Ace (John Kelly Connolly) is another McMurdo veteran — a long-ago med-school dropout who boasts of having made love on every continent. Lonely to the bone, he desperately wants a kiss (and more) from Dee, who very deftly deflects him.

The only scientist we meet is Jake (Kyle Zornes), a nerdy grad student studying microbial life forms that seem to die and then return. The only short-term visitor is Miller (Brian Keys), an extreme athlete and naval officer who dares to defy nature. Both men are drawn to Dee, who for very different reasons is drawn to them.

As with those who have been in war zones, the longer people stay at McMurdo — with its pared-to-the-bone existence and formal routines — the more difficult if not impossible it is to return to “civilization.” And really, how could you not get hooked on the biscuits and honey butter, the sightings of penguins and whales, and a Royal Society Gala that just happens to turn into the craziest and most beguiling dance sequence on the planet?

One final note: This is the last play Chicago theatrical mentor Sheldon Patinkin ever collaborated on, and you can bet he is out there, somewhere, crying and grinning at the brilliance of it all.