On the Verge by Eric Overmyer

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        We take upon ‘s the mystery of things,

        As if we were God’s spies.

                               –Shakespeare, King Lear, v, 3

In On the Verge (or The Geography of Yearning), three Victorian lady travelers take upon themselves “the mystery of things” as they set out for “Terra Incognita” and discover. . . . 1955?! By attending the first CU Theatre Department production of the new year, you’ll join an expedition into Eric Overmyer’s witty, wordy wonderland of places and times both distant and distant-er. It’s an exciting, theatrical adventure led by a trio of intrepid trekkers – Mary, Fanny and Alexandra – who pass through a jungle bejeweled with artifacts of the future, hack through history’s underbrush, sojourn with cannibals, bridge-guarding trolls, gas station attendants and night club crooners, taste Cool Whip and experience the miracle of the jacuzzi. Along the way, they explore language, imagination and, most of all, the human desire to wander unmapped places both inside and outside ourselves. What is it that calls us on to discover the new and strange and incorporate it into what we are by making it part of what we do and know? Like the lady travelers of the play, each of us lives every moment of every day on the verge. The reasons we find for continuing the journey are the geography of our own yearnings.

Eric Overmeyer



Eric Overmyer was born right here in Boulder, though he grew up in Seattle. His education points to an early interest in things theatrical and, like the lady adventurers in his play, toward a tendency for geographical relocation. He earned a B.A. in theatre from Reed College in Portland, then did graduate work at the Asolo Conservatory in Sarasota, Florida State University in Tallahassee, Brooklyn College and the City University of New York. In addition to a number of plays besides On the Verge, Overmyer has written extensively for television. His resume includes some of the best programming of the last two decades – short-lived but critically acclaimed shows like The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and The “Slap” Maxwell Story as well as the classic Eighties hospital drama St. Elsewhere and the classic Nineties cop drama Homicide: Life on the Street,  for  which he served as producer.

On the Cusp of Adventure: The Victorian “lady travelers” and their world

I am doing what a woman can hardly ever do – leading a life fit for a man.

                                                        –Isabella Bird

In the Victorian Era of the 19th century women were often thought of as unable to perform many of the tasks that men did. The worlds of politics, higher education and business were virtually closed to them. Instead, society expected women to stay in the home, raise children, and perform “social” tasks.

In the late 1800s, a small group of women (supported by an even smaller group of men) began to protest the dominant legal, social, and cultural view that they were inferior to men. Beginning in America with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, these women pressed for changes in property law that would allow them the same rights as men—the right to own property, vote, and have equal protection in the workplace.[1]

Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra, the heroines of On the Verge, are fictional characters based on actual women – those Victorian women known collectively as “lady travelers” who escaped their own closed society by exploring places far beyond the bounds familiar to most Westerners, male or female. Though most expeditions into the uncharted regions of the American West, Africa, Asia and the islands of the Pacific were made by men, these women played an important role in opening up the world to Western society. At the same time, their travels effectively furthered the emerging cause of women’s rights by demonstrated the error of relegating women to an inferior role.

Most of these real life Victorian lady travelers came out of British and American upper-middle-class households that provided them with enough money (and time) to begin their travels. Isabella Bird (see below), for example, began her travels on money left to her by her father upon his death and supplemented this income with earnings from a series of books, beginning with those she wrote on her travels to the United States just prior to the Civil War. Others, such as Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel, married men who supported their urge to travel and provided the funds for it. David-Neel only lived with her husband for a short period of time, spending the rest of their marriage traveling while he worked as a colonial official in Tunisia. She also, managed to make her own living as an actress and journalist. In the play, Alexandra speaks of an inheritance, Mary a “commission from the Boston Geo” (the Boston Geographic Society), and Fanny of her husband’s willingness to support her while she travels.

Like their fictional counterparts, the lady travelers journeyed to many parts of the globe. One of the most popular destinations was the Himalayan mountain range of South Asia, the favored destination of the play’s Alexandra. Many portions of this remote region remained unexplored by Europeans, even into the 20th century.

Mountain traveling posed many dangers, especially in an age when existing equipment gave little help in more extreme climes. Fanny Bullock-Workman, an American traveling in the Karakorum range, watched as one of her experienced guides fell to his death only a few steps in front of her when a portion of a glacier collapsed. She continued her journey and produced invaluable surveys that would help her become the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne.

Alexandra David-Neel became the first European woman to visit the holy capital of Tibet, Lhasa. In order not to be caught, she disguised herself as a Tibetan peasant traveling with her son–actually her longtime aide, Yongden – through some of the least-traveled mountain passes. For several months, they hiked at elevations of 10-15,000 feet and higher to reach the city. The unexplored jungle could be just as dangerous. Mary Kingsley, like Fanny in the play, drove off crocodiles by “thwacking” them on the head – though she used a canoe paddle instead of an umbrella. These dangers were potentially fatal, but these women persevered.

In most cases, the Victorian “lady travelers” saw many problems with the way Europeans treated native populations. Kingsley, who traveled among various tribes in the jungles of West Africa, found the administration of the British short-sighted, solely serving the colonists’ self-interest. She expressed the view that, “Whatever we do in Africa today, a thousand years hence there will be Africans to thrive or suffer for it.” She wanted Europeans to see the African tribes as “brother humans” with cultures of their own. Alexandra David-Neel went one step further, actually attempting to teach Europe about the traditions of South Asia. She became a Buddhist and, in her writings, explained Buddhism in terms Europeans could understand. The Dalai Lama was so impressed with her studies that he allowed her to live in a monastery, a place otherwise forbidden to women. In an era where writers like Rudyard Kipling were extolling the virtues of European colonialism, some of these woman adventurers joined a tiny minority of voices calling for change. When the fictional Mary says, “English is the engine and its vehicle is Empire,” she expresses an understanding many of the actual “lady travelers” shared as they witnessed first-hand the devastation that Europeans frequently brought to the societies they colonized.

Through their books and lecture tours, the Victorian “lady travelers” expanded Western knowledge of the world beyond its borders. At the same time, they pushed back the rigid frontiers of women’s conventional roles in society by demonstrating that women could explore uncharted territory and survive hardship with the same pluck and daring as their male counterparts. Though not all of these travelers saw the liberation of women as any part of their goal, the cumulative effect of their perseverance was to help the cause of women’s rights. They were truly “on the verge” of a revolution.

On the Verge in the Rockies: A “Lady Traveler” in Colorado . . . 

Born in 1831 in Birmingham, England, Isabella Bird was a sickly child. When she failed to find better health as she grew older, travel was suggested by a doctor as a “prescription.” The travel worked, as she soon found herself robust enough to take long journeys into high mountains all around the world. Eventually, she would travel alone through the American West, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaya, Sinai, Tibet, Persia, Korea and China–a remarkable achievement in a  “a time when ladies were supposed to be helpless and submissive.”

The year 1873 brought this already accomplished traveler to the railhead at Greeley in the Colorado Territory in the years before statehood. Denver was only fifteen years old, some areas of the Rocky Mountains remained unexplored and most of the population arrived on the tide of the Gold Rush or came in search of cattle and ranch land. Bird began her Colorado journeys by attempting to explore Estes Park. Though a handful of people lived there, very few others were interested in making the journey into what is now the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

After attempting the trip with a Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers and becoming lost due to Mr. Chalmers’ incompetence, Bird was thrown from her horse and broke her left arm. She stayed with a doctor’s family as she recuperated, but was ready to give up and take a train to New York when she met two young men who intended to leave for Estes the next day. Joining them, she finally reached Estes. There she met Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent, a “notorious ruffian and desperado,” who was taken with Bird and proved to be quite charming and gentlemanly. It was Nugent who led Bird up Longs Peak—a difficult climb in late September, with winter snow beginning to fall. She became only the second woman to ascend the mountain that men had only first conquered first years earlier.

Nugent fell in love with Isabella, but she spurned his advances, claiming love was, for a woman of forty, merely “vanity.” Remaining in Estes until the end of October, she helped rancher Griff Evans with a cattle round-up before leaving to visit Denver and explore the boom towns and cattle ranches to the south. She visited the Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs and traveled around what is today Fairplay before returning over Monarch Pass to Denver. Unable to retrieve her money following an economic crash, she returned to Estes to await the money owed her by Evans, the cattle rancher. She stayed for three weeks,

Isabella Bird in Tibet (not Colorado)

reestablishing a relationship with Jim, who had been unable to cope with her departure and was reeling from the effects of alcoholism. In the end, they patched up their friendship, Bird received her money from Evans, and she left for New York. Though she would never return, she would write of her journey in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, published in 1879.

Adventures in Scenic Design

When Seah Johnson[2] was assigned to be the Set Designer for On the Verge, she had no idea of the obstacles the show would present. On a first read-through, the script is a little overwhelming. In the world of the play, “Terra Incognita” not only means “unknown land,” it also implies an imaginary place where time travel and “osmosing” the future are commonplace occurrences. “Considering that the ladies change time and locale every few pages,” Seah says, “creating a setting for this play is a little more complex than a box set with a couch and a table.”

The fast tempo of the show, where the ladies can literally move years ahead in only a few minutes, makes any sort of “realistic” set (one that closely represents place with specific detail drawn from reality) almost impossible to create.  In fact, Eric Overmeyer, the playwright, specifically asks the designer to avoid the trap of realism: “This is a play about the imagination, and about theatricality. It should be conveyed imaginatively and theatrically, not literally—in other words, with light, movement, and sound.”

Seah began by trying to create a space that could portray entire worlds and a great variety of locales with minimal scenic changes.  When designing, Seah says, “I usually discover a picture in my imagination, and the set springs from there. For this show, I wanted to give a sense of the characters stepping in and out of a void, which I’ve tried to create through the use of a large portal. Creating a space that wouldn’t overwhelm four actors onstage was also important. This is an easy play to over design.”

Once the base set had been established, she filled in many of the scene details with research she did on the late 1800s, the period of time from which the ladies set out on their journey.  The map of the world that covers the globe platform at stage left comes from that time period and evokes the sepia-tone look that we associate with photographs of the time.  As the play progresses, more color is added to the set until the vibrant colors of the 1950s dominate the stage.  For Nicky’s Paradise night club, she consulted menu design books, many of which have examples of design elements common in this later period.  She was also able to use more specific research for a few items; for example, she found her image of the “Esso” station in a book on gas station paraphernalia for collectors.

In designing the show, Seah first played around with a number of sketches that she then discussed with director Candace Taylor.  Though each of these “preliminary” ideas had their own unique qualities, all of them used circular patterns to create a sense of movement.  After they worked out some of the details, Seah built a model of the set to present to the design team and the actors.  From there, she had to convert the set into technical drawings (such as a ground plan) which would be used by the Technical Director and the rest of the scene shop staff to actually build the set.  Finally, as both the designer and a technical assistant in the shop, she has been helping with construction and painting.

On the margins of meaning: A partial glossary of “moving” words and phrases

One thing that’s hard to miss about this play is the language. Overmyer admits that On the Verge “is, at least in part, a play about language” and, true to his word (or should we say words!), Mary, Fanny and Alexandra speak in a fast-paced, funny and often complex style, using many antiquated, obscure or unfamiliar words and phrases. And many of those words relate to movement, travel and transitions of all kinds – spiritual, physical and historical. Jeff Grapko, the production dramaturg, put together a BIG list of these words and phrases for the cast (so they’d know what they were talking about!) and we’ve edited that list down for presentation here. In the entries which follow, the word/phrase is followed by the line from the play in which it first occurs, a rough guide to pronouncing the word and then a definition:

embarcadero (“We’ve reached our embarcadero.”) [em-bar-cuh-DARE-oh] A landing place, especially on an inland waterway.

Antipodes (“Up against it–in the Antipodes–”) [Ann-TIP-oh-deez] An unexplored territory that implies a diametrical opposite to the explored; often used in regard to Australia and New Zealand, once considered the farthest points from known, civilized places.

Terra Incognita (“Trekking in Terra Incognita!) [TARE’uh in-kog-NEE’tuh] Unknown territory: an unexplored country or field of knowledge.

peregrinations (“I have heard your peregrinations are impelled, in part, by scientific curiosity,” he said, “Allow me to offer you some sage counsel…) [PARE’ruh-grin-A’shuns] A long journey in which many destinations are touched upon, esp. such a journey taken on foot.

sojourner (“Occasionally encountering a sister sojourner on a trek–”) [SEW-jur-ner] A temporary resident. A stranger or traveller who dwells in or visits a place for a time.

palaver (“Whenever I must palaver with a pasha or poobah, I…lay out a formal tea.”) [pah-LAV-er] Talk; conversation; especially idle talk or talk tending to deceive. Also, In Africa, a parley with the natives.

Anthropophagii (“Anthropophagii tend to be sluggish, you know.) [Ann-throw-POFF-ah-guy; the plural of anthropophagus] cannibals.

Social Darwinist (“Yes, Mary, there are two sorts of people in the world. There are cannibals–and there are lunch.” “Fanny, you are a Social Darwinist”) One who believes that Darwin’s theories of evolution through natural selection work within social orders as well as in nature. In the extreme form of this ideology rooted in Victorian England, Darwin’s biological notion of “survival of the fittest” was translated into a belief system which justified the excesses of British capitalism, imperial expansion and colonialism: the rich and powerful were rich and powerful because they were better adapted to the social environment than were the poor and powerless. Another example of a “social Darwinist” in literature would be Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Flying Dutchman/dirigible (“The Flying Dutchman dirigible! What a story for True Trek!) [dur’IDGE-ubul] In legends of the sea, the Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship that is supposed to haunt the seas around the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa) and to lure other vessels to their destruction. Similar legends are found in many other countries.

A dirigible is an airship (lighter-than-air craft, filled with helium or hydrogen gas) with a rigid frame. By comparison, a blimp is just an inflatable, balloon-like bag with no frame.

osmosis (“We’re absorbing the future! Through osmosis!”) [ahs-MOE-sis] The process, in plants and animals, by which a liquid moves gradually from one part of the body or the plant to another through a membrane.

Great Leap Forward (“Little Red Book. Great Leap Forward. Swimming the Yang-tze River. Tractor Operas.”) All phrases in this line of Alexandra’s are related to the emergence of Communism in China in the wake of WWII. The Great Leap Forward was a massive industrial and agricultural development program intended to transform China’s economy overnight but which, instead, ended in the largest famine in world history.

Terra Firma (“Don’t you think we ought to seek Terra Firma?” [TARE’uh FUR’muh] solid ground.

Chronokinesis (“I have tentatively dubbed this phenomenon we are experiencing – chronokinesis. Fanny’s tabloids will call it “time travel.”) [KRON’oh-ken-EE’sis] A movement through time that lacks directional orientation and depends upon the intensity of stimulation.

Verge (from the title) Actually two words which have (pardon the pun) converged over the centuries. In the Latin, virga is a twig, rod or wand and vergere, means to bend or turn. In Middle English, the word acquired its meaning as “an enclosing line or border or an area so enclosed.” Today, a verge is “the edge, brink or margin (of something); as, the verge of the forest” or “to tend or incline (toward something)” or “to be in the process of change or transition,” as in “broad humor verging on slapstick.”

More About . . . 

Seneca Falls Convention – The first women’s rights convention, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and held July 12-19, 1848 at Seneca Falls in New York state. It attracted both men and women interested in the cause of women’s rights. Particular issues addressed were women’s suffrage (voting rights), equal access to education, a woman’s right to own property and to speak in public without incurring the wrath of their families.

The Victorian Era – a period in the 19th Century, usually defined by the years of Victoria’s reign as Queen of England (1837-1901). Victoria was able to imprint the latter half of the nineteenth century with her name because England was, at this time, the undisputed leader of the world. Her economic and military power was unrivaled by any other nation in Europe, her colonies spanned the globe (thus, the phrase “the sun never sets on the English Empire”) and her cultural impact was commensurate with these unprecedented levels of power and influence.

Karakoram range – The mountains in Kashmir, a region of northern India and Pakistan.

Sorbonne – The Paris University called the Sorbonne, one of the great universities of Europe, was founded in 1254 by Robert de Sorbon, court chaplain to King Louis the IX. The first printing press in France was set up there in 1470. Its world-class library dates to the 18th century.

Dramaturg (also “dramaturge”) – an advisor in the theatrical production process who fills the role of script analyst and researcher. His or her tasks, performed in collaboration with the director, include but are not restricted to, historical research, participation in the rehearsal process, text and story analysis.

Works used in preparing this preview . . .

The Almanac of American History by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 1993.

Amazing Traveler: Isabella Bird by Evelyn Kaye, 1994.

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller, 1976.

Women into the Unknown: A Sourcebook on Women Explorers and Travelers by Marion Tinling, 1989.


[1] Though we often take such rights for granted today, they have only been enacted in the last 100 years.

[2] Seah is a junior working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Technical Theatre.  She has been working in theatre since high school, where she was first introduced to tech by a teacher who often had her classes help in the scene shop when shows fell behind schedule.  Besides Scene Design, she also has an emphasis in Stage Management. Her first position as a Stage Manager at CU was this season’s opening show, Equus.