‘Outward Bound” at Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse is a seldom-seen classic that has been tweaked by director Anita Schwaber to bring it up to date a bit while preserving its mysterious aura. On an elegant set, the well-chosen cast brings the tale to life with charm and humor.
The play by Sutton Vane was written in 1923 and had successful Broadway runs in the 1920s and ’30s. There were three film versions and some television shows in ensuing years. The story has the otherworldly character of the much later “Twilight Zone” TV tales.
Seven passengers meet in the lounge of an oceangoing ship and discover that they are the only passengers. Each one is confused about where he or she is going, and the only crew member appears to be the steward. As the journey unfolds, each passenger’s character emerges, their destination is defined, and in the second act personal secrets are revealed.
George Anderson is perfectly cast as Scrubby, the steward. He looks the part as an old soul who has the answers but reveals them sparingly, and he speaks with a soft tone of resigned cynicism.
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The first people to meet on the morning of departure are Tom Prior, an admitted lush already drinking a scotch, and Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, the ultimate snob, who is horrified to discover that the ship has no class system and she may find herself dining with someone beneath her self-inflated station. She is also distressed by a clergyman being onboard, as she sees his presence as an omen of bad luck.
Michael Shanley is good as Prior, an unabashed alcoholic who becomes the first to discover the ship’s true destination, but because of his habit, no one believes him when he tries to tell them. Shanley plays Prior with the flippant air of someone who knows who he is and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. Sharyn Young is properly uppity as Mrs. Banks, whose snooty persona is annoying but funny.
The passenger who upsets her most is Mrs. Midget, a working-class woman with a Cockney accent, considered by Mrs. Banks to be so low on the social scale that she can’t speak to her. Janice Peters is excellent as Mrs. Midget, likable and confused. The clergyman, Reverend William Duke, is well played by Jerry Praver. He takes a no-nonsense approach to the situation and to the reactions of the other passengers, one of whom advises him, “Don’t just stand there, get upset!”
Craig Brooke plays Mr. Lingley, a character as unlikable as Mrs. Banks. He is a pompous businessman who tries to take over the situation. Brooke manages to portray him as a blowhard with underlying vulnerability.
Sister-and-brother actors Paige Spiller and Blake Spiller are good as Ann and Henry, rather strange and bewildered sister-and-brother passengers who have their own secret. In the 1923 version, these characters were an unmarried couple who lived together — considered scandalous at the time, today that situation is relatively uncontroversial. Director Schwaber has given this generation’s duo a new secret inspired by contemporary events.
Arriving late on the scene is the otherworldly Reverend Frank Thomson, played well by Jerry McKinnon.
The sets at the Plough, designed by Jim Buckley, are always fine, but this one is exceptional. The lounge has portholes opening out around the room onto the suggested deck, with sky visible. The centerpiece of the set is a gorgeous reproduction of the art deco elevator doors of the Chrysler Building, which serves as the door from the deck to the lounge through which the actors come and go. Stephen Price created the door, and Rick Young fabricated the portholes. Art Van Rhyn is set builder.
This is an entertaining play, with humor, mystery and some food for thought as the characters examine their lives and discover where they are headed.