The RMS Titanic, the high-tech marvel of the early 20th century that sank into the sea, has inspired art in many forms over the past 100 years. It seems fitting that American playwright Jeffrey Thatcher’s “Scotland Road” — a psychodrama written in 1992 that takes place more than 80 years after the “unsinkable” ship went down — has caught the passion of scientists and engineers at the APL Drama Club.
Currently showing at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, “Scotland Road” conjures the tale of a beautiful young woman (played by Sarah Robinson) found floating on an iceberg by a Norwegian fisherman in the late 1990s.
When asked during her rescue where she came from, she answered, “Titanic.”
“Scotland Road,” directed by Sharon Maguire with help from Kevin Piaskowski, is set in a stark white room somewhere off the coast of Maine a few weeks later.
The young woman, who would become known as Winifred and now appears mute, is being cared for by Dr. Halbrech (Annie Marcotte) in the employ of a man known as John (Steve English), who has an unexplained interest in cracking her story.
Maguire sets the tone by announcing the location of emergency exits and life vests during the pre-show and suggests that live cellphones may be tossed overboard.
Then eerie backstage lighting rises and falls to the sound of crashing waves, turbine engines and Scottish bagpipes; and the lights rise onstage to a sparse set constructed by the show’s producer, Dave Zotian.
John will go to great lengths to force the enigmatic woman to speak. Appearing to be between 25 and 30 years old, she’s never had any dental work done and the Victorian clothing she was found wearing held no traces of seawater.
After six days enduring psychological warfare, she breaks her silence, and John and Halbrech discover that Winifred is not Finnish, Swedish, German, Italian, Russian or Norwegian, but British.
Meanwhile, Marcotte as the level-headed Dr. Halbrech, assists the interrogation while fiercely protecting her patient. Winifred watches and waits to turn the tables on her interrogators.
Maguire’s cast rounds out with Alisha Hunt as Miss Kittle, a reclusive Titanic survivor. Corey Felver and Jacob Greenberg double as the charming deaf and mute “hospital” attendants and the show’s stage crew.
The sophisticated narrative travels through time, memories, dreams and hidden motives. But the dialogue, which occasionally waxes fantastical or metaphorical, circles back to touch reality even when little proves to be what it seems.
As Winifred, for instance, Robinson describes wanting to go “up Scotland Road…up up to Hebrides” (where she was rescued) to see the mountain of ice. (“Scotland Road” was a long corridor on the Titanic named by crew members after a road in northern Liverpool, and Hebrides is a group of islands north of Scotland.)
Unlike classical mysteries, the plot winds tighter instead of unraveling, and one of the four characters dies as the play sails closer to John and Winifred’s frightening truth.
Maguire’s blocking and compositions are visually exciting; the show’s time-lapse style staging flows like liquid poetry.
Under the stage management of Rebecca Koslover (assisted by Amanda McKee), cast and crew achieve a captivating piece of theater art.
Robinson as Winifred is a standout. Her physicality, accent and vocal acting are consistently stellar. In one of many highlight moments, she performs an eerie but lovely a capella rendition of an Episcopalian hymn (“Autumn” is believed by some to be the last song played on the Titanic).
English shows an impressive acting range (and also sings well). John is quite terrifying early on when he threatens to rip the sound out of Winfred with his bare hands, nails and teeth, but the veteran actor creates excellent chemistry and sympathy for his character as John and Winifred draw close later in the play.
Consistently believable, Marcotte never misses a beat as a steely scientist with a heart, the moral compass who questions, “How do you prove a negative? How do you prove an absence?”
And as the acerbic Miss Kittle, Hunt delivers a solid performance as the last Titanic survivor.
One inherent perk the APL Drama Club enjoys is the caliber of its tech support. A/V is credited here to John O’Brien, Chris Cooke — who orchestrated stunning original music and sound — and Eric Chang. Rose Tringali’s costumes are also quite lovely.
Wide open to interpretation and beautifully designed, directed and enacted, the APL Drama Club’s spring production of “Scotland Road” runs a fascinating 1½ hours.
“Scotland Road” runs for two more performances, April 12 and 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the APL Parsons Auditorium, JHUAPL, 1110 Johns Hopkins Road. Admission is free, but reserve seats at email@example.com.