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Thunder Rock

Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 18, 2020
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Jamahl Garrison-Lowe and Jed Peterson
Photo by Tanya Parks
The production history of Robert Ardrey's Thunder Rock is a fascinating footnote in the annals of American and British theatre. First presented on Broadway in 1939 by the Group Theatre and with direction by Elia Kazan, the play closed after a mere 23 performances. The subsequent year, a production opened in London with Michael Redgrave as its star, and Thunder Rock became a massive wartime hit. A film version followed in 1942 with Redgrave reprising his role, and the play was performed internationally for the next decade before slipping into relative obscurity.

As it is wont to do, the invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse has unearthed a dramatic curio from the theatre's ash heap. If the current production does not exactly reveal a polished gem, Thunder Rock is an intriguing work by a little-known playwright.

The plot revolves around lighthouse-keeper David Charleston (Jed Peterson), a former journalist and Spanish Civil War correspondent who has sequestered himself from society. On a tiny island in Northern Lake Michigan, Charleston has limited contact with other people, but once a month he receives supplies from the mainland and routine evaluations by Coast Guard Inspector Flanning (Kelly Dean Cooper). Flanning is frustrated with Charleston's fastidiousness and perfection, and wants to replace him with someone he can more actively manage. "Any man that's working under me," Flanning says, "I like him to be moderately lazy, tolerably inaccurate, and just a little bit dishonest. I like men normal."

The pilot of the Coast Guard supply plane is Streeter (Jamahl Garrison-Lowe), Charleston's longtime friend and interpersonal link to the outside. In his own way, Streeter has also distanced himself from humanity, but he is determined to become a fighter pilot in China and potentially make a difference in Asia's war effort. He urges his companion to once again come to the aid of civilization rather than withdraw from it. Charleston refuses.

With the world on the cusp of war and "hell-bent on destruction," Charleston retreats into a realm of his own making. Ninety years earlier a ship carrying sixty immigrants and its crew struck a nearby reef and everyone on board drowned. To pass time and find meaning in the world, Charleston conjures the ghosts of the ship's captain (David Murray Jaffe) and five of the immigrants. They include a Viennese doctor (Howard Pinhasik), his wife (Susanna Frazer), their daughter (Hannah Sharafian), an Emma Goldman-like radical (Teresa Kelsey), and an impoverished expectant father (Linus Gelber).

As their author and creator, Charleston attempts to instill hope in the characters, but their suffering and futile (non)existences eventually overcome him. He despairs, "I'm as helpless in a world of my own choice as I was in the world I was born into." It will require a great deal more faith in the triumph of good over evil than the lightkeeper can muster by himself.


Howard Pinhasik, Susanna Frazer, Linus Gelber, Hannah Sharafian, Teresa Kelsey, and Jed Peterson
Photo by Tanya Parks
In some ways, the play is reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Ardrey's program bio states that he was mentored by Thornton Wilder. Wilder's influences are evident in Thunder Rock, such as elements of existentialism as well as the epic heroism required of day-to-day survival. One of the characters describes her envy for living people that is not unlike Emily's paean to life from Our Town. Ardrey's play also reflects the long progress of humanity and the hopefulness amidst the inherent destructiveness of humanity, ideas Wilder explored in The Skin of Our Teeth, which premiered three years after Thunder Rock.

The Metropolitan production directed by Alex Roe makes a generally strong case for the play, but Ardrey's drama tends toward the preachy. The characters are mostly mouthpieces for socially conscientious ideas rather than fully formed characters. In short, there is thunder where there should be lightning. In his review of the Group Theatre production, Brooks Atkinson made a similar point, claiming that the play is "more thunder than rock." Atkinson praised, though, the use of the shipwrecked spirit-characters. He wrote, "Although ghosts are difficult to accept as prophets in the modern world, Mr. Ardrey has created some sensible ones who do not flap their grave-clothes in your face."

Vincent Gunn's lighthouse set perfectly captures the sense of claustrophobia and alienation, and the ghostly atmosphere is enhanced by Christopher Weston's lighting. Michael Hardart's sound design effectively reflects the natural and industrial worlds, and Sidney Fortner's costumes neatly show the metaphorical clash of the late 1840s and the late 1930s.

The actors do fine work with the material, and Peterson is very convincing as a man in the midst of an existential crisis. There is excellent ensemble work, but in the second preview the company was still finding its footing. With more performances, the audience's experience will surely be richer.

In these precarious times, Thunder Rock has, unfortunately, lost none of its relevance. As Ardrey expounds, humankind takes a few steps forward and at least one step backward every century. All we can do is hope that society will not be finally dashed against the proverbial rocks.


Thunder Rock
Through February 9, 2020
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East Fourth Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: MetropolitanPlayhouse.org


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