(Warning: Though I've tried to be circumspect, details on Scotland Road's mysteries may slip out. Proceed with caution.)

The psychological drama Scotland Road, the first production in New Ground Theatre's 2005-6 season, is both entertaining and disheartening - entertaining because of the skill of director Michael Oberfield and his cast, disheartening because playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's work doesn't quite seem to deserve their skill.

Set in the early '90s, a mysterious young woman (Emily Burr), believing herself a survivor of the Titanic, is discovered floating in the Atlantic. A doctor (Lora Adams) and interrogator (Adam Lewis) attempt to glean the truth of her identity, and Oberfield lends a very talky piece wonderful visual and verbal acuity. His lighting design, especially, is ingenious - before each new scene begins, the actors pose in a momentary tableau of half-illumination, as if caught in an aging photograph - and the show opens on a marvelously creepy note; the first two minutes play like the stage version of the opening credits to Seven. Oberfield also conducts the actors' pauses with considerable panache, and, for much of the work, maintains an atmosphere of escalating tension; this is first-rate work, matched by two first-rate portrayals.

As Scotland Road's driving force, Adam Lewis is sensationally inventive. It takes talent and daring to play a creep without coming across as a creepy actor, and Lewis gives his dialogue so many inspired curlicues that he makes his relentless son of a bitch not just fascinating but likable; Lewis' character is simultaneously amused, baffled, and deeply disturbed by his mysterious charge. Those fortunate enough to catch Lewis as Che in this summer's production of Evita at Western Illinois University know what a passionate, expansive stage presence he is, and there isn't a moment in Scotland Yard when he's less than riveting; even when the play is running off the rails, Lewis remains grounded. This is a deeply thought-out, deeply effective performance.

As for Emily Burr, it's the strangest thing - I've seen her now in three major roles in four months, and never quite recognize her from one show to the other. This is something more than a gifted actress showcasing her range; Burr's entire facial structure seems to change with the requirements of the character. Her prone-to-tears Catherine in Boston Marriage bore no physical resemblance to Burr's relaxed Anna in Closer, and although she doesn't speak during Scotland Road's first half, her air of patrician disdain is unmistakable, and worlds removed from both Catherine and Anna; Burr's face seems elongated with haughtiness. Burr is a rarity - a chameleon performer - and when her character here finally does use her vocal chords, the moment is shattering; you might not realize how fully you're invested in Burr's mute performance until she tears you away from it. Burr is impressively committed to her role, and she and Lewis play their final encounter with as much emotional truth as the scene can bear.

The only thing keeping Scotland Road from being terrific is, unfortunately, the script itself. For a work that pays much lip-service respect to the Titanic disaster, Hatcher uses the tragedy in obvious, sometimes insulting ways. (Our familiarity with the tale through James Cameron's 1997 phenomenon and the countless books and documentaries its popularity spawned probably makes the script's weaknesses more pronounced now than when Scotland Road was first published in 1992.) Too much is made of the tragedy as metaphor, and when Hatcher trots out his play's fourth character, referred to as the last living Titanic passenger (Susan Dragon McDonald, delivering an enjoyable, sharp-old-bird turn), the moment feels fraudulent, and the use of the character as a punchline pretty offensive. (A routine Google search reveals there to be three Titanic survivors still with us, and this is 13 years after Hatcher wrote the play.) And, to be blunt, the finale is a botch. After more than an hour of cleverness and anticipation, I sensed that Hatcher had written himself into a corner he couldn't get out of; psychological tension and insight are sacrificed for a big switcheroo, and it feels like a cheat.

Thankfully, the performers and director Oberfield find ways to continually redeem the work. Watching Scotland Road is like winding up at the dentist's after your parents have told you you're going out for ice cream; the final destination might be a disappointment, but at least you enjoyed the ride.


Scotland Road continues Thursday through Sunday at the Nighswander Theatre in Davenport. For tickets or more information, visit (http://www.newgroundtheatre.org).


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