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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Irish Repertory Theater

By David Lefkowitz

  Tom Crean

Because it's there.

It take a certain type of person to brave unspeakable elements and risk life and limb for the sake of being able to say, "I was there." If you're especially plucky (and lucky), you get to be the one everyone remembers: the one who reached the moon, who climbed Everest, who planted the flag in no man's land. If you're less lucky, you go along for the ride but fall short of the grand prize.

Such a man was Tom Crean, an average seaman who fashioned an extraordinary career by being selected to join Captain Robert Scott and then Ernest Schackleton on their separate journeys to the Antarctic. Crean helped out behind the scenes of Scott's first trek and was heartbroken when, having sledged hundreds of miles on the second visit (1911-12), he was not selected to make the final push toward the Pole. Scott's decision to send Crean back also saved the Irishman's life, as the five seamen who forged on met an unfortunate end in the continent's 90-below-zero-Celsius climate.

Not that Crean's return journey was a picnic one of the most gripping sections of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Aidan Dooley's solo drama currently at off-Broadway's Irish Repertory Theater, recounts how he arrived half-dead at base camp and then sent a rescue party for his ailing commanding officer left 36 hard-trudged miles behind. For helping the Lieutenant reach safety instead of obeying the officer's own orders to move on and save himself, Crean would receive the Albert Medal.

You'd imagine one trip to frozen hell would be enough for Mr. Crean, but just a few months later, he was off on another expedition with Sir Shackleton, this one getting him even closer to his goal - and giving him even worse death-defying tsuris than the Scott debacle.

A physical and verbal cross between Denis O'Hare and Irish Rep veteran Ciaran O'Reilly, Dooley keeps a twinkle in his eye and a "why wouldn't I?" tone to his discourse that pulls us quickly along on Crean's sledge. That said, the actor's thick Irish accent and gabble-gabble pace can be exhausting, even with an intermission to separate the two major Pole stories. It's telling that the show's other most memorable segment is not action packed it's early on, when Crean dons his arctic gear, piece by piece, and explains how each article of clothing offers specific protection from the deadly chill. In the second act,however, one feels Dooley rushing the story, which takes a toll on his delivery and leads to a number of hurried fumbles and false starts.

One does wonder why Dooley eschews what would have been an obvious framing device. After his expeditions and service in World War I, Crean opened a still-extant pub in County Kerry. Assumedly, the piece would feel homier if Crean introduced it as if we were guests being welcomed into his establishment. It would also satisfy our craving to hear more about Crean's later-life satisfactions, regrets and worldview. (To be fair, a 2001 story in the UK Guardian notes that the real Crean was a taciturn figure who sat in the back of the pub reading while his wife ran the business.)

It seems churlish to criticize Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer for overstaying its welcome when it's all about a man who spent eight months on an ice floe. Certainly, audiences fascinated by the material will find much to thrill to in Aidan Dooley's impassioned storytelling. For the rest of us, it's a worthwhile but longish haul from pole to pole to pub.


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