Not that iron man Crean shrank from that which could get a man killed. Having gotten his polar feet wet on the Discovery expedition (1901-’04), he re-upped with Scott for the ill-fated Terra Nova trip (1910-’13), his wrenching part in which makes up most of act one of Tom Crean, then a year later signed on with Shackleton for Endurance (1914-’16), which survival story makes up act two. Dooley’s Crean sets the stage by demonstrating his outerwear — just the layered look for enduring temperatures that hit minus 90 degrees Celsius, winds that gust to 186 MPH, and an ice floor four miles deep. Then, mixing wit and a folksy passion into an ambulatory WGBH documentary, he carries us through the adventure of Terra Nova, when Crean wept at being left behind 145 miles from the Pole (the five who continued died) to slog 800 miles back to base camp with just two fellow travelers. When the commanding officer collapsed with scurvy, Crean walked 36 miles in 18 hours with a blizzard at his back, fortified with nothing but sheer will and chocolate, to alert rescuers. That’s what won him the Albert Medal. On Endurance he got both a mountain and a glacier named for him when Shackleton’s transcontinental exploration went a cropper and he, with Crean as right-hand man, got all 28 men of the expedition out of the brute Antarctic after 20 months, several spent floating north on an ice floe while subsisting on a diet of seal and penguin.
In Dooley’s performance, which is fierce and whimsical if not without some cliché in the writing, Crean’s polar adventures come to vivid life, from the repeated bashing of a seemingly unbreakable ship against unmovable glacial impediments to the teasing behavior of Shackleton’s cat goading chained-up dogs. (Eventually the dogs, each one savored by name, join the seals and penguins as dinner.) Toward the end the performer’s words start to tumble over one another, but it hardly matters. He just seems as exhausted as Crean must have been before finally retiring to balmy rural Ireland to preside over a pub called the South Pole — where there probably wasn’t even ice in the drinks.
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