"Let us trek."
With that simple suggestion, three Victorian women plunge into a journey that will yield far more than they ever bargained for in Eric Overmyer's comic fantasy, "On the Verge, or The Geography of Yearning."
Venturing from a point "somewhere east of Australia and west of Peru" into the great terra incognita, the trio of explorers are heavily armed with umbrellas, machetes and linguistic darts, taking the willing fellow-traveler along on what amounts to a head trip of remarkable breadth.
There's an irresistible pull to their adventure, certainly as presented by the clever, colorful production from Rep Stage. It's a worthy 25th anniversary celebration of a play that originated at Center Stage, where it was discovered among unsolicited manuscripts. The discoverer back then was Jackson Phippin, Center Stage's associate artistic director at the time, and he's the sure-footed director of this revival in Columbia.
"On the Verge" follows a blissful path that bypasses such routine theatrical devices as plot and character development. Overmyer's principal interest is language, and he uses brilliant wordplay to score myriad points about such things as feminism, social convention, the lure of the new, the difficulty of self-discovery.
In the end, nothing terribly profound may be learned, but a lot of amusing stuff happens on the ride, which finds those intrepid ladies going from traversing terrain to traveling through time, picking up hand-operated egg beaters (don't ask), Cool Whip and fresh ideas as they go.
Overmyer, whose writing for such TV series as "The Wire" and the current "Treme" has earned considerable praise, gently milks the comic potential of plopping folks from the 1880s into Ike-happy 1955 and letting them get a taste of different values and practices (such as "suburban charred meat festivals," or what we know better as barbecues).
The resulting clash of values and anachronisms exerts a magical effect in the Rep Stage production, which boasts a top-notch cast.
As Mary, de facto head of the mountain-climbing, jungle-slashing, never-short-of-pith distaff band, Leigh Jameson gives a rich performance. She has a distinctive range of vocal nuances, from the kittenish to the steely (she can deliver a put-down with the perfect deliberation of Coral Browne's Vera in the film classic "Auntie Mame").
Natasha Staley, as the faithful conservative in the bunch, calls to mind some of the timbre and even physicality of Ruth Buzzi. It's a delicious portrayal that keeps blossoming as the play keeps tossing the character into unexpected waters. And as Alex, the youngest and (naturally) least traditional of the exploration team, Tiffany Fillmore is another vibrant presence, revealing particularly infectious glee in the discovery of 20th-century idioms and objects.
Portraying a wacky assortment of men, from Brando-esque to lounge lizard-y to almost Gomer Pyle-like, and one very politically incorrect Chinese woman, Duane Boutte reveals an admirable virtuosity of accents and physicality.
The action unfolds on Richard Montgomery's inventive set with extra flair, thanks to a revolving floor. The scenic diversions include droll props and a backdrop of abstract stalactites, not to mention the nuanced lighting (Dan Covey) and expertly atmospheric music and sound effects (Chas Marsh). Denise Umland's costumes get both the Victoriana and 1950s Americana elements just right.
Somewhere amid all of the verbal dances and vivid imagery ("moose mousse," for one), all the historical reference points (you get extra points if you remember Bebe Rebozo), "On the Verge" imparts a simple lesson to go with its flight of fancy: To stay fresh and vital, just keep on trekking.
If you go
"On the Verge" runs through May 2 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $18 to $30. Call 410-772-4856 or go to repstage.org.