Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 20, 2007
If you've got a great story to tell, then you've won half the battle in creating memorable theatre. Aidan Dooley has a great story to tell in Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, and he tells it spectacularly well. This is a terrific show—entertaining, informative, and, above all, riveting—and it's perfect for the entire family.
Until I saw Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, I, like most humans on the planet, had never heard of Tom Crean. Turns out he's one of the unsung heroes of the last great era of exploration and discovery; a man who went to "the last place on Earth" three times (and he tells us that if we're wondering why he did, the answer is right there: who wouldn't want to go to the last place on Earth?)
Dooley portrays Crean near the end of his life, looking back on his adventures; Dooley solves the problem that often plagues solo shows, the why-is-this-man-talking-to-us question, by contextualizing the show, subtly and without a lot of hoopla, as a talk that Crean is giving to, say, a group of local school kids. It's an easy-going and ingenious way of getting this remarkable Irishman—who never kept a diary and therefore never really went on record about his career—to tell us about his journeys to the bottom of the world.
Crean joined the Royal Navy at 15, and at 24 he signed on with Robert Scott for his first trip to Antarctica, aboard the ship Discovery. A decade later, he traveled with Scott again, this time aboard the Terra Nova, where he came within 180 miles of becoming the first Irishman at the South Pole. Incredibly, just a year after this expedition ended, Crean made his third excursion to Antarctica, this time under Ernest Shackleton, aboard the Endurance.
I want you to hear Dooley as Crean tell you about these extraordinary journeys. I'll just give you this one hint: most of the history of exploration is a history of failure, not of success. Many good men perished on these three voyages. Crean's ability to survive them all is astonishing, and testament to his strength of will and good character. Dooley never makes Crean self-consciously heroic, which must have been hard for him to do because the accomplishments of this humble man are the stuff of epics. Crean's humility remains paramount in this portrait, and we can't help but admire him all the more for that.
Most of the material in Act I is about the Terra Nova expedition, while Act II focuses on the Endurance; the stuff of ripping yarns that if you made it up, nobody'd believe you. Interspersed among the adventure stories are all kinds of interesting trivia, most notably how one dresses for the extreme cold of the Antarctic (and why). Dooley's writing is loose but detailed. His command of his character is remarkable and thrilling, and his easy rapport with the audience is charming. He's a spellbinder, is what he is; this is one of those performances that won't soon be forgotten.
Nor should this show: by placing this lost hero center stage, Dooley rectifies one of 20th century history's omissions. Bravo to the folks at Irish Repertory Theatre for giving this engaging and exciting show a spot on their roster. Crean's amazing adventures in the Antarctic will both cool you off and warm you up during this sultry summer.