Play argues ANWR worth preserving

Jeremia Schrock
Sun Star Reporter

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has long possessed the ability to both inspire and incite. It is praised for its pristine beauty and lauded for its resource potential. Monday, Dec. 6 marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of the 19.4 million acre refuge that centers on the Brooks Range. UAF celebrated the milestone by hosting Wild Legacy, an original play commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, performed by the Memphis, Tenn.-based theater troupe, Voices of the South.

This weekend, Wild Legacy, which highlights a 1956 scientific expedition to the Sheenjek River (in ANWR), came to life in the Lee Salisbury Theater. The play is, at its heart, a romance. A romance not only between scientists Margaret “Mardy” Murie and her husband Olaus (played by Alice Rainey-Berry and Jerre Dye respectively), but also between themselves and the wilderness they see as “blessedly itself” and that they have come to love

The Murie’s and three other researchers (Brina Kessel, George Schaller and Bob Krear) spent two months traipsing up and down the Sheenjek River delta collecting plant samples and noting any wildlife they encountered. They captured the entire experience on photograph and film, which they later used to garner national support for their preservation efforts in the area. These efforts proved fruitful when Congress approved the creation of a national wildlife refuge in the area in 1960. It would not become known as ANWR until 1980 with the passing of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).

Wild Legacy is a narrative-style play. A narrative play is when prose works (like books) not originally intended for the stage are acted out using an author’s own language. Instead of the characters reciting traditional dialogue, they communicate through the words the authors have actually used. In this case, the play was based primarily around Margaret Murie’s book “Two in the Far North,” with excerpts from diaries of the expedition’s members, interviews, and Roger Kaye’s book “The Last Great Wilderness.” If anything, the play felt like a stage production of a Ken Burns documentary except better.

This style was helpful in making the play accessible, interesting and memorable. While Mardy and Olaus Murie were the driving forces behind the plot, the play was very much an ensemble production. Depending on a scene’s demands, the cast would add ambiance through a variety of self-created sounds: tongues were clicked to imitate a ticking watch, stomping feet mimicked a stampeding herd of caribou and mouth-noises created dozens of bird calls. Virginia Ralph (who played the Alaskan ornithologist Brina Kessel) composed the play’s original score, which she would sing softly to imply a shift in scene. There were several memorable moments when the cast borrowed from the best of improvisational comedy, one of which had Rainey-Berry, Dye and Ralph create a bush plane by simply standing on stage and lurching back-and-forth to imaginary turbulence.

The audience, too, became involved in the play. Whenever the actors would point toward the audience or to the back of the auditorium, the children present would crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the wolf, caribou or bear that had been spotted. By play’s end, these same children were dozing on the shoulders of their parents, proving that even nature’s beauty is sometimes best experienced by a good nap.

Roger Kaye, whose book was one of the play’s sources, was disappointed in audience turnout but impressed with the performance. “I thought it was great,” he said, saying that the play was loyal to the actual words of the Muries, and that, as far as he knew, maintained historical accuracy. “[It] really shows off what it was probably like.”

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