Poetry is not a thing that can easily be explained, nor is quantum physics, whose concepts rattled even Albert Einstein. And both forms of describing existence have their very particular entryways into abstract thought, complexity and magic.
‘CONSTELLATIONS’ Highly recommended When: Through July 3 Where: Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $20 – $89 Info: http://www.steppenwolf.org Run time: 1 hour and 25 minutes, with no intermission
The sheer brilliance and beauty of British playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations” —now in an altogether awe-inspiring production at Steppenwolf Theatre —is that he has not only found a way to intertwine these two forms but, simultaneously, he has been able to bring them down to earth in the most comprehensible way —through the relationship between a man and a woman.
“Constellations” is a dramatic miracle all its own —a precision-tooled rumination about everything of importance in this universe, to the extent that we can conceive it. And while it could not be more fiendishly difficult —the discipline and focus of actors Jessie Fisher and Jon Michael Hill, under the masterful direction of Jonathan Berry, are beyond imagining —it also is immediate, visceral and comprehensible. Yes, there is more than a touch of genius to be found here.
Marianne (Fisher), a theoretical physicist, and Roland (Hill), a beekeeper —a most unlikely pair —Meet Cute/Eccentric at a party, but nothing is certain in their encounter as it is played out in a number of radically different ways. Is one or another of them already married, or otherwise involved, or just not interested in getting involved, or recovering from a broken relationship? Will they go home with each other, or never meet again, or engage in an awkward temporary parting and future encounter? And if they do marry, what will happen? The possibilities are infinite. But life, as we are told by the supremely brainy Marianne, is not meant to continue on forever, at least in the way we generally think about it.
And yet, as Payne reminds us by the end of his play —which is as laugh-filled as it is profoundly poignant in its mediation on mortality —this universe is composed of atoms and molecules that never really die. We are part of an eternal loop. And “Constellations” allows Marianne and Roland to move through that loop in wondrous ways that are never less than entirely real. For while the play is cosmic in its speculations, it is entirely specific in its human connections, right down to a very funny series of interactions as the pair encounters each other at a ballroom dancing class.
The one crucial plot twist here is that at a certain point Marianne begins to develop difficulty retrieving words and formulating sentences. She is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her panic, frustration and thoughts of suicide (although that word is never spoken) are explored in the most subtle, heart-wrenching ways. Along the way, the mystery of human consciousness and expression becomes fully palpable, along with the terror of losing those essential signs of being, which are only magnified for someone like Marianne who lives so fully in her head. At the same time,however, the power of love asserts itself. And in one of the most beguiling sequences in the play the two actors suddenly communicate in sign language. It comes out of nowhere, yet feels perfectly right.
To be sure, if ever there were a test of the mechanics of the mind, the two actors in “Constellations” are subjected to them. Far beyond the nightmarish memory demands of the play’s many brief scenes, which are repeated with crucial variations of wording, there are the complete and seamless shifts in tone and intention that involve much the same wording. If Samuel Beckett’s work long-held the record for incurring mental stress in actors (lose a line and you are truly lost in space), Payne (whose newest play, “Incognito, is a hit in New York) has given him a run for his money.
The uncanny performances by Fisher and Hill suggest their musical as well as their acting talents. They play this script like a score. Fisher’s character is the more radically tuned —the more tempestuous and precariously balanced of the two —and she is nothing short of astonishing. Hill is droll, understated and sweet in a honeyed way, and his quiet way of listening provides the perfect counter-balance.
Do not miss the chance to bask in the illuminated sky of “Constellations.”