Chicago Theatre Review
The Story is in the Stars
Constellations – Steppenwolf Theatre
English playwright Nick Payne’s 2012 drama is an impressive, poetic two-hander that came to prominence when it earned the 29-year-old London’s Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play. That’s the equivalent of Broadway’s Drama Desk Award. The play premiered in 2015 in a New York production produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. From there it caught the attention of several regional theatres and has sparked interest as a possible film.
In this Chicago premiere, we have a brilliant script being interpreted by a team of topnotch theatre artists. Steppenwolf ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (from television’s “Elementary”) and Jessie Fisher (the Girl in Broadway’s “Once”) are directed here by the talented and prolific Jonathan Berry. Staged on Joe Schermoly’s simple, but expressionistic set, that resembles an open, mother-of-pearl seashell flanked by black draperies and overseen by a webwork of electrified cables that resemble the nervous system. Illuminated by Heather Gilbert’s atmospheric lighting design, and accented by Christopher Kriz’s original music and soundtrack, this is a quietly unassuming masterwork that must be seen to be appreciated.
Payne’s one-act is a boy-meets-girl play, at first a deceptively simple story, but spun out during its 70-minutes in several directions, often at once. It bears a certain resemblance to the film “Sliding Doors” and the musical “If/Then,” in the way it looks at the variety of alternatives for each of the play’s four or five vignettes. Each scene is presented multiple times with often subtle variations or overt changes in tone and style. The rationale for this comes from something one of the characters says to the other.
Roland meets Marianne at a barbecue. He’s a beekeeper, which is unique and unexpected; but she’s a quantum physicist, which is equally surprising. Early in the play, Marianne explains the key component to understanding her line of work, and thus Payne’s motivation for constructing his play. She says that in the quantum multiverse, every decision a person has ever—or never—made exists together in a vast ensemble of parallel universes. The playwright has taken this theory and run with it, tapping into that urge everyone has to imagine and reimagine how moments in life might be replayed. “If only I had said,” or “If only I hadn’t said.” The audience hears the same lines being delivered repeatedly, with different readings and intentions, causing subtle changes in the reactions. The resulting play is a love story, filled with all the awkwardness of discovery and of accepting and learning about each other. It’s a tale of how time and conflicted intentions can both inflict cruelty and be a balm for pain.
Jon Michael Hill is a model of naturalness and honesty in this role. His understated portrayal of Roland feels right and very realistic. He offers the perfect contrast against Jessie Fisher’s exquisite Marianne. Between the two characters, she has the flashier role as a physicist who finds herself inexplicably, yet unquestionably, attracted to a young man who seems like he’s from another world. That the two of these seemingly mismatched young people find similarities in their unexpected love, as well as the necessary emotional support for each other through the poetic dialogue of this drama, is a real testament to both Payne’s script and Jonathan Berry’s superb, economical direction. He’s brought his actors through the darkness of the night and up into sky. Mr. Berry’s guided two terrific actors to find their path to the stars, to the constellations.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 26-July 3 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in their Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com