San Francisco Theater Review: HEISENBERG (A.C.T.)

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by Patricia Schaefer on April 5, 2018

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Director Hal Brooks delivers a remarkably authentic and poignant tale with A.C.T.’s production of Heisenberg, a short play based on a rather unremarkable human relationship story. British writer Simon Stephens tells a more slender, muted tale here than in his ingenious The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time: When Georgie Burns — a 40-something American woman (Sarah Grace Wilson) — attracts Alex Priest– a wary, much-older, working-class Irish butcher (James Carpenter) — they set out to find what it is they need and desire in themselves, each other, and the world.

Alex pays homage to the lost past by spending his free time taking long walks across London, falling into imagined conversations with his dead ten-year-old sister, and revisiting sites where he kissed the fiancée who jilted him more than fifty years before. His heartbreakingly predictable story is one of wasted potential and lost dreams — and here it would have ended, in grey London-town with Alex quietly raging, raging against the dying of the light, had he not fallen through happenstance into the stirring twists and turns of Georgie’s fiery, unpredictable world.

While Wilson overplays the chaotic American grifter just a tad, with less subtext than might be called for, she personifies Georgie as a force of imagination, not entirely sure herself what is truth and what is wishful thinking. As Georgie blathers on, commanding the vast majority of dialog throughout the play, Wilson does a fine job convincing us of the possibility of both her sincerity and stark deception. As she rambles on, literally throwing herself into a relationship with a man 33 years her senior, we are left to ask why. Alex, too, is left to ask, exasperatingly: “Why are you talking to me?” Strategically, Georgie is the catalyst to Alex’s blossoming; she tracks him down at his stockless butcher shop with a barrage of questions and hopeful inquisitions, only to have Alex bravely withstand her verbal volleys while acknowledging privately that things could be a lot worse than having a young, attractive coquette flirt with him.

We all know that Georgie wants something from Alex. After a romp in bed, her request is met with anxious distress. We are asked to consider, is Georgie being deceitful? Is she a con artist or a lost soul? And why is Alex still listening to her and enduring this provocative relationship? What is in it for him and why? What does he have to gain and in what manner should he react?

While the play’s title is purposely elusive — much like German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle itself — the two actors’ performances are intuitive and compelling, and make excellent use of the skinned essence of every relationship: putting two people together and watching what they bring out in each other. The resulting alchemy is palpable and endearing because Carpenter plays Alex’s conventional Irish character with unexpected gallantry and a touch of the scholarly poet, suggesting through economical gestures (a tilt of the head, a gentle reach of his hand) that there is much more to this meager Butcher than meets the eye.

Heisenberg clearly offers older men renewed faith and optimism that perhaps it’s never too late to find companionship, even intimacy and possibly love. What Alex gains is a fuller, more present life. Carpenter comes to make his few words count; his ability to make us believe in Alex’s wisdom, abundant patience and generosity amount to a dramatic triumph.

Designer Alexander Nichols adorns A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre in hues of quiet blue that align with taciturn Alex’s eloquent silences, which are especially pronounced when set against Georgie’s nervous agitation. When Georgie propels herself across Nichols’ purposely sparse set, nervously laughing and blurting out random thoughts, she is accompanied by Brendan Aanes’ cool ambient music and the spar, erudite comments of Alex, hermetically sealed in his lonely bachelor’s existence. What the two actors bring out in each other is much more than the sum of their parts. The acting is sublime in this simple yet elegant production — and, similar to Heisenberg’s theory, what results is profound and impossible to predict.

photos by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater
A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street
ends on April 8, 2018
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit A.C.T.

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