Poorly planned, plagued by misfortune and propelled by misguided ideals, Capt. Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to discover the South Pole in 1911 was doomed from the start. Choosing not to subject dogs to the Antarctic rigors, he and his four men pulled their 1,000-pound sled southward over the frozen wastes. One of them contracted gangrene, slowing down progress, but Scott refused to abandon him to the cold, even though his death was inevitable. When the straggling party finally reached the South Pole, it was only to discover that the more efficient Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had gotten there 35 days before them.

Their spirits dwindling as rapidly as their rations, Scott and his men were faced with the cheerless prospect of trudging, empty-handed, back over 800 miles of barren land that cried out for their death with every howl of the wind. Eleven miles short of probable safety, they perished.

"I feel like some ludicrous footnote to history," says Scott, midway through Ted Tally's "Terra Nova," which takes this somber and discouraging adventure and turns it into a thoroughly engrossing drama. Although frequently performed throughout the world (and periodically rumored as a possibility for the Kennedy Center), Tally's play is just now getting a hearing in the area at Baltimore's Center Stage. In this sound and satisfying production, it is a very convincing piece of work.

Upon first consideration, one might conclude that Scott's sweeping saga is more properly the province of the cinema, which can depict the physical and geographical rigors of Antarctica with far more realism than the theater. But Tally's drama, while a persuasive portrayal of untold hardships in a hostile wasteland, is something more--an act of poetic conjuration. He uses the delusions engendered in Scott by the blinding snow and the inhuman chill to break through the boundaries of realism.

Fragments of Scott's past life mingle with present agonies. His sculptress wife appears out of the snows and their courtship is relived. At the start of the second act, Scott and his men, spankingly attired in crisp tuxedoes, are seated at a banquet table, celebrating their triumphant return to England. But the dinner is really taking place in their collective imagination. At the height of the festivities, the elegant crystal service is stripped away and the table is instantly transformed into the sled of death. The men are back in a freezing hell.

Though their paths never crossed, the pragmatic Amundsen himself turns up at Scott's side, goading his rival, challenging his ideals, and ultimately extending the ironic charity of the winner. It is Amundsen who puts his finger on the crux of Scott's plight when he observes, "You've learned every single rule, but not one dark corner of your own heart. You're the most dangerous kind of decent man." Nurtured on notions of fair play, patriotism and honor, Scott is indeed an upstanding man. He just doesn't have the imagination or the guts to call it quits. The Antarctic, however, is no place for upstanding men. Scott's tragedy is that of many good men plunged into circumstances that call for more than stolid goodness.

Under the accomplished direction of Stan Wojewodski Jr., the play takes on the billowing shape of a black-and-white dream, swirling in and out of Scott's consciousness. The odds are established as soon as Scott's ship, the Terra Nova, sails up to the edge of the forbidding continent. A series of ghostly etchings, great ledges of snow and monstrous daggers of ice are projected on a vast wall of white that constitutes the entire set. Against that wall, performers--mere human beings, after all--will stand out with surrealistic clarity, splotches on an endless roll of shelf paper.

The cast members act out their awful fate with grit and sobriety. As Scott, Brian Murray understands that authoritarianism is often a function of bewilderment. J. Kenneth Campbell captures the ironic shades of Amundsen, and Patrick Clear is particularly moving as the petty officer who prefers to give up a gangrenous hand rather than his dreams of reaching the South Pole. But it's really an ensemble effort, and this cast is tightly knit, in ambition as well as failure.

Less than a couple of decades after Scott's disastrous mission, others would fly over the South Pole in airplanes. The science of exploration surges ever forward. In that sense, "Terra Nova" deals with a historical footnote. Still, Tally touches on something enduring. Scott and his men may have been measuring the ice caps, but they were also measuring themselves. And that contest never dates.

TERRA NOVA, by Ted Tally. Directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr.; set, Hugh Landwehr; costumes, Robert Wojewodski; lighting, John Tissot; sound, George O'Brien. With Brian Murray, J. Kenneth Campbell, Beth Dixon, Lance Davis, Peter Burnell, James Harper, Patrick Clear. At Baltimore's Center Stage through April 25.