An Initial Condition
Think about it: H.G. Wells' "Time Traveller" must witness the absolute decay of human civilization; James Darren and Robert Colbert went from disaster to disaster in TV's "The Time Tunnel," and poor Captain Kirk fell in love with Joan Collins, in 1930s New York City, only to let her get run over by a milk wagon. Not to mention David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself," where the protagonist falls prey to the ultimate kind of narcissism. Evidently, for reasons inherent in the form, time travel will always be impervious to the lessons of history.
Flash forward to todayor (we should say) let us now hopscotch through the jagged path of personal histories that are actually highly intriguing in An Initial Condition. There are two things going on in Taylor Gruenloh's challenging new play, and one of them is brilliant and enthralling. But as matters stand in the present, the second thing pretty well strangles the first.
The first thing is the story of a quirky mathematician named Chance (played with intense intelligence by Sean Green). He comes up with an entirely new way of studying cancer. And his most prominent test subject Sarah (played by the wonderful Rachel Tibbetts) is seen getting better and better through most of the play, thanks to his intervention. (Cue ominous music.)
But this same mathematician has also devised a formula for burrowing back in time, to start over on the same patient, again and again, with (usually) improving results. So whenever we see Sarah, we are seeing her for the first time, in different time-lines (in most cases). As played by the luminous Ms. Tibbetts, it's an exhilarating process. The writing directly pertaining to her character is quite splendid, too.
But, then, there's that "second thing," that threatens to destroy the first. Allow me to quote from Shaw's Pygmalion, after Eliza Doolittle has bolted, and Henry Higgins has gone to his mother to complain (and to muck up her tea party).
"I know, I have no 'small talk,'" Henry confesses, faced with the prospect of being bounced from a respectable gathering.
"It's not your small talk I object to, Henry," his mother replies. "It's your 'large talk'!"
And that's the problem herethere's too much "large talk," about the grand scheme of things, and about the generic struggles of existence, when there really should be a lot more simple personal development of the characters. Every actor on stage pitches in with their own good, psychological character development, but it's mainly thanks to their unspoken efforts, and to director Robert Moss, that we get any overall sense of emotional flow. (Setting aside, again, the terrific storyline.)
There are also three or four excellent moments of theater here, including the point when Sarah finally erases a white-board filled with strange equations, and also all the way back at the top of the show, when her niece Zelda (the beautiful, heartbroken Mikayla Sherfy) appears suddenly between two huge black squares on stage, as the lights come up. The successful parts of the drama are undeniable. Christopher Williams is quite touching as a young man who also has two vastly different fates, depending on which time-line Chance emerges from. But Chance and Zelda (Sarah's niece) could each be given a lot more to say about why and how all this affects them so personally.
Nevertheless, every moment Sarah is on stage, the show has direction and humanity and a compelling sense of drama. I would love to jump forward in time to see An Initial Condition again in the future, perhaps with more of her, but definitely with the rest of the characters just talking about simple human issues. They already have a great story to tell; it just seems like they're avoiding telling too much about themselves in the process.
It's clear that an enormous amount of work has gone into the writing and structuring of this 90-minute storyand maybe we shouldn't expect it to sing like Rodgers and Hammerstein, all the way through (or, if you want a musical example about time travel, maybe we should cite Lerner & Lowe, or Jason Robert Brown). But wouldn't it be nice if every character were given dialog to show something like the hearth-fires and holocausts that Sarah's got, one way or another, in her every appearance? Her struggle is so personal and profound that every moment she's on stage comes "that close" to redeeming all the pondering of imponderables.
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Before all of that, though, the evening begins with a short play, Words Are Hard, written by Shane Strawbridge and directed by Alex Hylton. The subject matter here is also quite remarkable, touching on that one awful moment in a young gay man's life when he realizes his friends are going to be swept away from him, in a very personal way, as they pursue their own heterosexual lives, at the threshold of adulthood. That young gay man is played with understated yearning and exasperation by Chris Null.
It's a great subject, but even if the play is only 10 minutes long, there probably ought to be some personal monolog for the kid, explaining his feeling of being cast adrift to those who've never known itor those who've known it all too wellat the start of what anthropologists sometimes call "the courting years." I fear that his silent undercurrent of fear and yearning and disappointment may otherwise be lost on most audiences. Both Mr. Null and Mike McPartland (as his friend) do nicely in a brief show about life's largest issues (love and death) towering over two young adults.
The double bill runs through May 24, 2015, at the Regional Arts Commission. And one other thing that strikes me here is that neither of these new plays seems to be wishing it were a filmhow refreshing is that? But I forgot my own rule about the Regional Arts Commission, and did not bring a seat cushion for the hard plastic chairs! It made for an uncomfortable physical experience.
For more information on the two shows, visit www.tesseracttheatre.org/
Words Are Hard
Director: Alex Hylton
An Initial Condition
Director: Robert Moss
Crew for both shows