Antarctic lore has it that in 1913, explorer Ernest Shackleton placed a newspaper ad reading: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” Recent research suggests that the notice is apocryphal, but the hazardous journey was not. The next year, 27 men set out with Shackleton in the Endurance, determined to reach the South Pole. One of those men: Tom Crean, a boatswain from County Kerry.
In Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, a solo show about several polar adventures, Irish writer-performer Aidan Dooley plays Crean, a role he premiered in 2003 during the New York International Fringe Festival. Dooley received a Best Solo Performance Award for his debut. While we can offer no such accolades, we will insist that Dooley deserves something—a medal, a lifetime supply of chilled hooch—for donning so much clothing in the midst of a New York summer. He wears thermal underwear, vest, pants, hat, and boots when he first appears onstage. Then, under the hot stage lights, he adds a sweater, mittens, and waterproof jacket and trousers. Putties, too. Endurance, indeed.
Though Tom Crean never actually made it to the South Pole—a bad cough halted him only 145 miles from it—he did travel to the Antarctic three times, twice with Captain Robert Falcon Scott and once with Shackleton. Unlike many of his comrades, he made it home again, fingers and toes intact. Dooley doesn’t stint his audience on the terrors of those journeys. Scurvy, sores, blizzards, madness, shooting and eating the sled dogs—Crean mentions them all. But clearly it isn’t the exigencies that interest Dooley as much as the adventures. He’s most lively during the Boy’s Own Stories passages—tobogganing down a cliffside, fending off a storm at sea, walking 20 hours on half rations to rescue his crewmen.
Dooley relies on a very limited set of expressions and gestures, and his attempts to engage the audience directly often falter. But his warmth and his passion for the material triumph over any awkwardness. Dooley offers a gritty narrative, and yet a deeply romantic one, as when Crean explains his motives for travel: “Can you imagine . . . merely imagine standing, standing where no one had ever stood, to see a vista never seen before, wouldn’t that be magnificent?” Scott did not agree. When he reached the South Pole, he wrote in his diary: “Good God, what an awful place.”