A remote, windswept island far from civilization could be a veritable Eden, or it could be a barren locale of hardship and isolation. It all depends on your view of beauty. Outlying Islands by Scottish writer David Greig, the current offering from the ever-adventuresome Upstream Theater, delivers an evening of allegory and metaphor that is as open to as many interpretations as there are viewers.
Set on a small island in the North Atlantic near Scotland in the summer just prior to the onset of World War II, the story revolves around two Cambridge naturalists who have been sent by the British government to conduct the first official survey of the isle's abundant bird life. The only other inhabitants are a crusty curmudgeon of a caretaker (Jerry Vogel, effective in a role without surprises) and his simpleton niece, a child-woman whose very presence evokes an undercurrent of erotic voyeurism. The action occurs in a former pagan church, a rundown sanctuary that contains the island's only table, which in turn becomes a kind of impromptu stage upon which many of life's rituals play out.
As usual, Upstream has delivered a production that is impeccably professional. Director Philip Boehm has sought to transform the Kranzberg Arts Center into a kind of aerie that is both ephemeral and eternal — the musty, acrid set design by Michael Heil, sound design by Josh Limpert that allows us to hear the birds and ocean that we cannot see, lighting by Steve Carmichael that makes an onstage fire feel like an onstage fire. When the first meal is served, the food is actually steamy hot. Puffin, anyone?
"We're here to observe, that's all," explains John, the more timid of the two ornithologists. As persuasively portrayed by Scott McMaster, John is a guileless scientist whose life is devoted to observation but who is incapable of action. John seeks to find an explanation for everything, and those explanations inevitably lead to prohibitions (as in, Thou shalt not...). Easily shocked, John deems it a sin to even harbor hidden thoughts, let alone act on them. By stark (perhaps improbable) contrast, his partner Robert is a lusty hedonist who is quick to act on every capricious enthusiasm. But Robert is also a fool — and a dangerous fool — because his passions and convictions change more quickly than the tides. Jason Cannon delivers every sentence as if it's the most important line in the play — which certainly speaks to Robert's gusto but which becomes a kind of acting by exclamation point.
That may well be what is intended; the playwright has a soft spot for repetition. When, in the play's first minute, the door to this pagan hovel breaks down and collapses with a crash onto the floor, the evening promises high theatricality. But when that door continues to crash all night long, the effect loses its impact. Although Greig has written an artful play, he does not adhere to the universal principle of art that encourages one to say as much as possible with the minimum of means.
The most fascinating character is Ellen, the shy child-woman who knows little of life beyond what she sees in the cinema. Her view of the outside world is shaped by the comedies of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Ellen is as innocent as the birds that flock to the island to nest, and it turns out that she shares their priorities. Elizabeth Birkenmeier's Ellen is a striking phantom figure, dim and sensuous.
Although dangers from both without and within will threaten this idyllic, hardscrabble existence, some of the key plot points seem hastily contrived, probably because they are not the playwright's primary concern. Greig is ever striving for a kind of lofty lyricism. "The island claims us," he suggests. But does his play do the same? That answer depends on your tolerance for metaphor.