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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Two Degrees
Prime Productions
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Great Society and La Rondine


Toussaint Morrison and Norah Long
Photo by Dan Norman
When Tira Palmquist wrote Two Degrees, its title referred to the 2° Celsius limit on increased atmospheric temperature that, according to climate scientists, was the threshold before global warming would destroy the ecological balance of planet Earth. Since the play first appeared in 2014 that finding is already obsolete, as last week's startling report from the United Nations now warns us that 1.5° Celsius is the uppermost increase we can sustain. Thus, Palmquist's play is exceedingly timely, with an urgency that increases with every passing season. The play is now on view in a superb Prime Productions staging in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio Theater, with a luminescent performance by Norah Long that conveys the commitment, passion and sacrifice needed to turn the tide on the ever-growing danger of climate change.

Though Two Degrees runs only 95 minutes, it has a lot going on. Climate change and our government's response to it lies at the play's core. On a larger scale, it addresses the structural mechanism of our government that allows moneyed interests to wield tremendous power. It also touches on personal responsibility, the filters in our vantage point that allow intelligent people to come to drastically different conclusions, and the growing chasm in perspectives that makes communication between one half our nation and the other half increasingly fraught. In that last regard it shares ground with another currently running play, Trademark Theater's remarkable Understood, but Two Degrees is less hopeful on the matter.

The play begins with paleo-climatologist Emma Phelps (Long) in Washington D.C to testify before a Senate committee. Emma has been studying ice cores in Greenland from which tens of thousands of years of the planet's history are discerned. These yield evidence of the earth's climate during the last great warming period—one that cannot sustain life as we know it. After years as a researcher, Emma has the chance to make the political powers see the grave dangers ahead, thanks to her old college friend Louise, now a U.S. senator from Michigan, who put Emma on the expert witness list.

Our first glimpse of Emma is not in a senate hearing room, but beneath the sheets engaging in vigorous sex with Clay, whom she met earlier that evening at the bar of their D.C. hotel. When their desire is consummated (with fight choreographer serving in a new capacity, as intimacy coach, guiding the actors to a very authentic climax), Clay wants to linger and expresses interest in seeing Emma again. Emma will not have it. She simply needed to release pent up angst about her impending testimony before the senate committee. Or not so simply, as we find out afterward that Emma carries the weight of memories of her high school teacher husband, who died while she was doing research in Greenland, a circumstance that has prompted complicated feelings Emma has been unable to resolve.

Over the next few days, Emma is incensed to learn that scientific witnesses will be greatly outnumbered in the hearings by mining, oil, and other corporate entities that would exploit the polar regions rather than protect the disappearing glaciers. She is being coached to prepare for her hearings by Louise's chief of staff, Wilson (who bears a marked resemblance to her husband), in the manner a teacher might prepare an eight-year-old for the school play, and, to top it off, keeps running into Clay in the hotel lobby.

Although a lot is packed into the play, including flashbacks to scenes of Emma's marriage and of her research base in Greenland, Palmquist manages to fit all the pieces together with a plot that, as it unravels, seems patently plausible. Emma's complicated and conflicted feelings are all earned by the narrative, while her resolve to stand firmly behind her work is supported by the choices she makes.

Even a major coincidence that occurs late in the play, turning the loyalties between characters on their ears, feels true. Sharp dialogue and Shelli Place's crisp direction that draws out the subtext of the relationships between characters play a large part in making the play feel like a potent blend of personal redemption and political advocacy.

The quartet of actors all excel. Norah Long, as Emma, has a luminescence that makes us totally believe in what Emma stands for, even when she is something of a bitch. Long conveys Emma's obvious intelligence and ambition, but also her regrets and the despair of her losses. It is a lovely, fully formed performance. Joel Liestman is excellent playing Emma's husband Jeffrey, the politico Wilson, and also a native Greenlander handyman who befriends Emma, creating three very different men, all of whom try to mold Emma to their idea of her, and all of whom she resists.

As Clay, Emma's one-night stand who tries mightily to become a bit more than that, Toussaint Morrison projects an abundance of charm, wit, and sensitivity—even when Emma shows nothing but scorn for said sensitivity. Jennifer Whitlock completes the cast as Louise, Emma's friend from their days in Ann Arbor who has learned to do what is necessary to succeed in the gamesmanship of government. She is exceedingly warm toward Emma, but Whitlock cannily cloaks that warmth with the manufactured empathy a politician has for the widow of a fireman killed in action, or a flood victim, or a home-town Olympic victor. She hides the seam between the genuine person and the perpetual candidate for office.

The flexible space in the Dowling Studio is arranged as a proscenium, with the playing area divided between the raised stage and the floor in front of it. At times the transitions between scenes feels a bit awkward, as the lights remain dimmed while we await the movement of furnishings to establish different settings, but the play never loses momentum. The rear stage wall is draped in what appear to be canvas tarps, hung with their wrinkles and folds showing. The lighting (expertly designed by Karin Olson) is able to create the illusion of glaciers on these surfaces to provide images of the place Emma has done her life's work, and which has had the strongest hold on her. At other times, projections on this surface effectively let us know that we are close to the National Mall (through Emma's hotel window), at the Capitol, in a senate hearing room, or in the ornate corridors of the capital. Jeni O'Malley has costumed each character in accordance with the degree of power they hold, a consideration on which Wilson gives Emma some direct pointers.

Two Degrees is very much of the moment, with its focus on the impending ravages of climate change. Sadly, I suspect this issue will remain with us for some time, keeping Two Degrees highly topical. Its observations on the way power is brokered and the essential nature of compromise (albeit it, we see little of that in D.C. these days) certainly extend beyond a single issue. Moreover, its portrayal of the personal sacrifice that individuals like Emma make, at costs never even bargained for, in order to do the work that is essential to their sense of self, makes both a cautionary and inspirational message. Two degrees is a fine play, very worth seeing, especially at this time in our national life.

Two Degrees, through October 21, 2018, by Prime Productions at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are $9.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224, or go to www.guthrietheater.org. For information about Prime Productions go to www.primeprods.org.

Playwright: Tira Palmquist; Director: Shelli Place; Production Director: Michael Shann; Set Design: Annie Henly; Costume Design: Jeni O'Malley; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Tech Director: Jeff Brown; Image Director: Andrew Issacson; Projection Content: Andrew Saboe; Voice and Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Intimacy Coach: Annie Enneking; Composer: Kevin Farrell; Stage Manager: Sarah Perron; Producers: Alison Edwards and Elena Giannetti.

Cast: Joel Liestman (Jeffrey/Wilson/Malik), Norah Long (Emma), Toussaint Morrison (Clay), Jennifer Whitlock (Louise).


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