Past, present, living, dead all collide in haunting sci-fi thriller ‘Solaris’

“Solaris,” the play, is based on a 1961 novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem. Staged by Scott Weinstein in the 56-seat Schwartz Stage at Edgewater’s Raven Theatre, the production marks the play’s North American premiere.

SHARE Past, present, living, dead all collide in haunting sci-fi thriller ‘Solaris’
Nicole Laurenzi, TJ Thomas and Isa Arciniegas in Griffin Theatre Company’s North American premiere of Solaris. Photo by Michael Brosilow.  

Nicole Laurenzi (from left), TJ Thomas and Isa Arciniegas are among a crew of scientists on a research space station in Griffin Theatre Company’s North American premiere of “Solaris.”

Michael Brosilow

“A degree of strangeness has become normal for us,” says one of the occupants of an isolated space station in “Solaris,” the unsettling science-fiction play now being staged by Griffin Theatre Company.

The speaker, Dr. Sartorius (Nicole Laurenzi), is addressing a new arrival, Dr. Kelvin (Isa Arciniegas), who’s come to check on the crew after months of radio silence. Kelvin has already learned from the station’s only other crew member, Dr. Snow (TJ Thomas), that the mission’s commander — and Kelvin’s friend and mentor — is dead, though Snow and Sartorius disagree about the cause.

Beyond that, the spooked scientists won’t say much about the nature of their dilemma, other than hinting that it emanates from Solaris, the mysterious and possibly sentient ocean planet they’ve come to study. Kelvin, bewildered and wary, is left to wonder — until she wakes up the next morning to find Ray (John Drea), a long-ago lover, lying next to her in bed.

‘Solaris’

solaris review

When: Through Mar. 27

Where: Griffin Theatre Company. at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark

Tickets: $40

Info: griffintheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission

There are any number of reasons Ray shouldn’t be here, acting like he just woke up from a night on the beach with Kelvin, who hasn’t seen him in years. Kelvin reacts with shock, quickly replaced by horror; the presence of this ghost from her past so unnerves her that, once she regains her composure, she tricks this “Ray” into entering the air lock and expels him into the void.

When Snow finds Kelvin moments later, wracked with guilt and terror in equal measure, he knows exactly what she’s experienced: “You had a visitor.” And here, visitors tend to keep coming back.

“Solaris,” the play, is based on a 1961 novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem, which previously spawned two major film adaptations: a bloated but influential 1972 Soviet version from director Andrei Tarkovsky, which became a film-school staple, and a leaner 2002 variant by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney as Kelvin.

The stage adaptation is by the inventive Scottish playwright David Greig, and premiered in Australia in 2019; Griffin’s production, ably staged by Scott Weinstein in the 56-seat Schwartz Stage at Edgewater’s Raven Theatre, marks the play’s North American premiere.

We learn that Ray is the latest in a series of “gifts” manifested by Solaris for its human observers; they started with objects, like childhood toys, but eventually began to take humanoid forms, approximations of lost loved ones pulled from the crew’s memories and dreams. Ray is the first who’s able to speak. (Greig’s decision to make Kelvin a woman and her visitor a man feels more than cosmetic, then; it alleviates the dynamic, too common in mid-century sci-fi, of female characters existing only as motivation for men.)

TJ Thomas (left) and John Drea in Griffin Theatre Company’s North American premiere of “Solaris.”

TJ Thomas (left) and John Drea in Griffin Theatre Company’s North American premiere of “Solaris.”

Michael Brosilow

Greig turns Kelvin and Ray’s conflicting journeys into a question of the soul. Initially repulsed bythis apparition from her past, Kelvin becomes seduced by the possibility of a do-over, even an artificial one, while Ray, becoming more aware of his origins, despairs at being robbed of self-determination.

It’s a lot of heady philosophy to cram into two acts and a tiny stage, but Weinstein’s nimble production holds our attention thanks to assured, forceful performances by Arciniegas and Drea, even if they lack the age difference we imagine Greig intended. Kelvin feels written to be a middle-aged woman being offered the chance to relive a youthful affair; as compelling a presence as Arciniegas is here, she reads as young for the character.

Griffin’s production also benefits from nifty retro-sci-fi production design. Joe Schermoly’s modular unit set makes smart use of two sliding panels to suggest multiple sterile locations, while props designer Ivy Treccani draws from the analog past: video diaries left behind by Kelvin’s dead mentor (played by a pre-recorded Larry Baldacci) are on VHS tapes, while Snow’s sophisticated audio equipment is represented by a pair of 1970s-vintage stereo mixer boards. It’s a strange new future, with a degree of normalcy.

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