Sunday, April 21, 2024

IMPRESSIONS: Centenary’s “Off the Map” Explores Uneven but Rewarding Territory Through April 2nd

We go to the theater to find magic. It’s a hope that we bring to every production.

With our first good look at the stage, we’re already testing if this show can keep its promise– whether the set will become our world and we can enter a heightened reality where truth lies close to the surface and people, for all the weight of their histories, can change. If that’s not magic, what is?

In Christine Foster’s new play, “Off the Map”, produced as part of the Women’s Playwrights Series at Centenary University and playing now until April 2 at the Lakeland Performing Arts Center, we glimpse some magic.

It flashes through a production that shows signs of rush: a few fumbled lines, a set that’s sometimes built more concretely in the dialogue than physically established. But performances make or break a show’s promise.

Despite some undeveloped backstories in the script and a late-stage deus ex machina that stretches the bounds of audience acceptance, the actors find the warmth in their characters. Truly human moments break through, and the play keeps its promise.

It’s helped by intimate stage design. Walk into Centenary’s Kutz Blackbox Theatre, and you’ll see an alley stage that places the audience on opposing sides of the set, offering everyone what feels like a front-row seat to the action.

Set designer Jacob Brown had a tall order building a thatched jungle hut on one end of the stage and an ancient overgrown tomb on the other, but Joyce Liao’s lighting does some heavy lifting to suggest the leaf-shaded tropical heat we need.

Act I starts like a tragicomedy featuring Thoreau-quoting Denny and Claire Newhart (played respectively by a convincingly exuberant David Sitler and a warm and often poignant Carolyn Popp).

They’re a married couple six weeks into a vacation in South America. To Denny, their
jungle hut is paradise. In Claire’s words, it’s a “green hell.” Their marital problems get worse from there.

Claire’s on the verge of abandoning Denny to his overgrown cottagecore fantasies when two archaeological surveyors wander onto the property.

There’s the traditionalist academic Dr. Julio Ferrero (a focused if sometimes unemotional Phil E. Eichinger) and the young, impatient radical Angela Lang (a bright-eyed Kayla Yepez, not quite reaching the emotional depth of the older equity actors around her).

The characters stumble onto a stone structure buried beneath centuries of jungle growth and tentatively explore its secrets. One by one, each beholds a discovery so miraculous, it’s
unspeakable. The reveal comes with a genuine jolt of shock and wonder. May the theater gods cast a thousand curses upon any who spoil it.

The journey gets bumpy in Act II. The first act sparkled with plenty of humor, most stemming from Denny’s efforts to convince himself that he’s an enlightened being.

The second act brings the humor to a halt with a series of confessional monologues from the characters, some of them touching on conflicts or backstories that didn’t feel developed enough for the attention they were getting.

A genre switch comes too, from a mix of archaeological thriller, situational comedy, and relationship drama to something that’s best described as fantasy.

But that’s the big thematic question that playwright Christine Foster wants to ask. In the playbill and in conversation, Foster has plenty to say about the arrogance of archaeology as an academic discipline. The script reflects her real-world experience as a former archaeology major as well as her real-world anger at its failures of imagination.

Both the script and the characters ask: why do some ideas become academic orthodoxy,
despite evidence that undermines them? Why do some of our assumptions become certainties, and what would happen if we had enough imagination to dream up other ways?

Not coincidentally, what Foster calls “communal imagination” acts as a redemptive force of healing in the play. These questions could meander into overly intellectual territory, and at times it’s as if the script spends time criticizing a crowd of invisible archaeologists.

But two performances in particular ground the play’s action in emotional reality: Popp’s full-hearted tenderness and Sitler’s portrayal of an absurd man who, for all his pitiful antics, longs for reconnection. These two actors shine throughout the production.

The strength of their performance makes the abstract questions real and the play’s finale a joy.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.