Jane E. Nitsch and Sam David. Photo by Machpe Protography.
In “Guys and Dolls,” the character Nicely-Nicely experiences a rebirth of spirituality, scared straight by a dream which taught him not to rock the boat. Frank Loesser’s lyrics, first heard by audiences in 1950, might have been inspired by the 1923 Sutton Vane play, “Outward Bound.” In it, seven passengers board an oceangoing vessel of undetermined size (the script refers to it alternately as “ship” and “boat”) under the watchful guidance of a steward named Scrubby (Richard Peck). As far as anyone can tell, Scrubby is the only crew member present and his uniform bears the insignia of naval commander. He seems content, though, to serve drinks and answer questions—to a point. We learn the passengers aren’t really sure what day it is or where they’re headed. They’re a disparate bunch, sharing libations and card games in the craft’s smoking room while suspicions arise as to the true nature of their journey.
…some really lovely work…by the actors…The cast’s effort is quite visible and appreciated.
Introduced in the curtain speech as ‘Twilight Zone’-ish, “Outward Bound” suggests what Sartre might have written a generation later if he had trebled the cast size of “Huis Clos.” Vane’s characters arrive in ones and twos, beginning with the dapper couple, Ann and Henry. Ann (Kate Crosby) is a fur-trimmed half-cockney and her beau (Will Beckstrom) is an Oxbridge speaker in a wing collar. They are soon joined by Tom Prior (Brad Harris Purtill), a heavy scotch drinker in a 21st century suit, and Mrs. Cliveden-Banks (Jane E. Nitsch), a bristly dowager with a fur hat and a cane. The Reverend Duke (B. Thomas Rinaldi) is next, followed by cheeky charwoman Mrs. Midget (Sam David) and member of Parliament, Mr. Lingley (Andrew Syropoulos), whose accent suggests either American or Canadian. There are, predictably, culture clashes aplenty in this period piece. Cliveden-Banks disapproves strongly of Midget’s presence within the same level of accommodation—for instance, demanding that she be relegated to steerage. She is less unsettled by Prior’s constant drinking. Prior, for his part, is open about his “very weak character” and is also the first to suggest to his fellow-travelers that something might be very different indeed about this voyage.
Vane’s script is slow-moving and contemplative and director Erin Klarner (who also does the sound) gives it lots of time to breathe. While the formal structure of the play is in only four scenes, there are a great many sections in which different combinations of characters get to share the stage in smaller numbers. This allows some really lovely work to come across by the actors. Nitsch and Purtill enjoy a chemistry that feels natural in its unease. Crosby and Beckstrom cling to each other in a frightened near-panic as their characters are consistently othered by the rest. Rinaldi and David make the best of things and try to get along with everyone. The former gives his parson character enormous existential dread, and the latter hides a major secret extremely well. Syropoulos makes Lingley a completely despicable capitalist sort. He is the driver of much of the play’s aggressive tension. Another compelling source is suspense, as the exact nature of the characters’ circumstance isn’t revealed until about two-thirds of the way through the 70-minute first act. By intermission, we know where things stand and can guess in what form the eventual resolution will take. Reaching its destination in the second act, the boat is met by the Reverend Thomson (Tom Howley), a sort of ghost of Christmas present, hail-fellow-well-met. He enlists Duke’s help and the pair initiate a courtroom drama in which the other passengers are dispatched in turn, one way or the other. It turns out, there is an exit after all.
Performing this century-old piece in its original setting pushes costumes and dialect work to the absolute forefront. Elise Musciano’s wardrobe is mostly wonderful, given what must have been a small budget. Her looks range in period from Victorian to contemporary, but everyone, aside from Prior, seems to feature at least a small detail suggesting a different time and place from ours. The actors were coached by castmate Sam David on their dialects (she’s a native speaker) with varying success. One imagines how difficult it must be for the actors to strain and focus on pronunciation (it’s more than just dropping a few “H”s) while still thinking of the intentions and needs of their characters. The cast’s effort is quite visible and appreciated. Scenery is by Rob Books and lighting is by veteran designer Jen Sizer, who makes great use of Spotlighters’ brand-new grid.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission.
“Outward Bound” appears through November 12, 2023 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. For more information and tickets, go online. Face masks are optional.