Science Project 

People’s Branch offers adventurous evening of theater; the Rep’s serviceable, professional Crimes doesn’t dazzle much

People’s Branch offers adventurous evening of theater; the Rep’s serviceable, professional Crimes doesn’t dazzle much

Einstein’s Dreams

Presented by People’s Branch Theatre, through Sept. 27 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater

Crimes of the Heart

Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre, through Sept. 28 at TPAC’s Polk Theater

Nashville’s 2003-2004 professional theater season kicked in last weekend, serving up a notable study in contrast between things commercial and things experimental. The contrast also serves to draw a demarcation line of sorts—where Music City’s more or less conventional theatrical ethos butts up against the continued stirrings of something a little further out on the modern edge.

The latter is captured excitingly in People’s Branch Theatre’s production of Einstein’s Dreams, first mounted for a brief run last spring and now receiving wider exposure in a return engagement at TPAC’s Johnson Theater. The adaptation, by Brian Niece and David Alford, is not the first taken from author Alan Lightman’s 1993 book, an acclaimed fictional projection into the mind and reveries of the great physicist. In what must be seen as unbridled tribute, various theater companies nationwide have attempted the same thing, and Lightman—who makes an in-town public appearance on Sept. 25—sees no one stage reworking as definitive.

As far as it goes, the PBT version, directed by Alford, mines the source material for its dramatic possibilities, but the overall effect goes well beyond words and good acting. Aided mightily by Anne Willingham’s especially atmospheric and eye-catching set, Alford sets forth to mastermind an exceedingly theatrical piece, which further draws on interesting costumes by Kate Foreman, some dazzlingly ethereal lighting effects by Scott Boyd, choice classical music selections, and video projections under the direction of Holly Allen. Alford is known to be fond of the Johnson Theater, having stated that he believes it has the potential to be the most innovative venue in town. It sure looks it here, as the director makes the theater function like the “black box” spaces in vogue with progressive companies elsewhere in the U.S. The basic look is right-angled, but the open playing area, studded with large, movable geometric shapes, melds basic visual simplicity with a sense of actorly improvisation, the players roaming freely like so many molecules bouncing about the nucleus of an atom.

Concepts of time, sound, speed and cause-and-effect form the play’s thematic heart; the dozen or so scenes are placed within several “realistic” frameworks exhibiting the preoccupied genius Einstein and his co-workers in uncertain daily routine. It is doubtful that the average theatergoer will grasp every idea put forth here. The text demands a careful listen, though there is no question that even halfway inquisitive minds will learn something. In fact, a second viewing of this singular production is probably in order if one intends to catch every nuance. Yet this fact has nothing to do with presentation. There’s simply a lot of theoretical matter being “pulsed” to the audience. The cast of Niece (as Einstein), Jenny Littleton and David Wilkerson are energy-plus in their performances, which veer from straighter, sober moments of scientific exposition to those of determined playfulness and whimsy. Littleton, especially, with her girlish yet flexible voice, proves again that she’s a major talent.

Finally, this evening’s worth of brain-food does more than provide a podium for Lightman’s hypothetical ruminations about the workings of Einstein’s mind: It allows the scientist’s dreams to serve as the jumping-off point for a fresh and freewheeling approach to live theater. That, in turn, gives Nashville a chance to see a handful of artists at work in a dreamworld of their own—where conventional boundaries can be broken and all involved might experience a new awareness of the theater’s elemental power. Nashville rarely witnesses original homegrown theater like Einstein’s Dreams, and this production signifies more growth and wider ambition on the local scene. Perhaps it’s also an indication that Alford, as fine an actor as he is, ought to direct more plays—or more of ’em like this one, at any rate.

'Crime’ time

The flip side of the theatrical coin is also currently at TPAC, at the Polk Theater, where Tennessee Repertory Theatre has opened its new season with Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. This was a pretty big play in the ’80s, and the film version was widely viewed and praised; oddly enough, it was even thought of as fairly daring. There are still color and humor in the characters of the three Magrath sisters, though a revisitation of their trials and infighting reveals less textual bite and, in this production anyway, less palpable interpersonal tension.

In fact, Crimes of the Heart seems to be on its way to becoming a staple of summer-stock and community-theater playhouses rather than a comedy-drama suitable for heavier regional venues. Its selection as a season opener by the Rep fits in well enough with the Mainstage’s subscriber-conscious appeal, to be followed hereafter by Dracula, God’s Man in Texas, The Diary of Anne Frank and Ain’t Misbehavin’. The Rep will allow more intellectually ambitious drama to flourish in its Off-Broadway Series, through the plays of David Mamet (A Life in the Theatre), Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Michael Healey (The Drawer Boy).

The David Grapes-directed Crimes features a gifted, veteran cast and a striking, unsurprisingly well-crafted set by Gary C. Hoff. The whole thing looks and reads professional all the way, and for most of the evening the play engages with its tale of small-town Mississippi ladies. Denice Hicks as middle sister Meg projects a little more sexuality than we’re used to, which proves interesting if unexpected. The very demonstrative Nan Gurley is cast against type in the role of mousy eldest sister Lenny, and to her credit she finds a means to make her characterization work. Amy Tribbey, so excellent in last year’s Proof at the Rep, fares less well as troubled baby sister Babe; she tries to balance cutesiness with intensity, yet misses the mark on the requisite eccentricity. Brandon Boyd and Jeremy Childs are just fine in fairly undemanding roles as the men in the ladies’ lives. By dint of her natural talent and by virtue of her apt casting, Martha Wilkinson turns in the best performance as the sisters’ brazen, big-mouthed cousin, Chick Boyle. Poised, consistent and funny, she goes over the top just as her role is intended to be played.

Crimes of the Heart is commercially pitched professional theater presented at a high enough level to please its intended audience. That said, it’s only vaguely inspiring and, at three acts in length, risks staleness by the time the final curtain rings down.


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