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Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Nick Payne’s “Constellations” is an actor’s play. Two performers never leave a prop-less, minimalist set for 80 minutes, and present a series of scenes, which skip unexpectedly through time and space, replaying moments with slight and large variations. Stars Jessie Fisher and Jon Michael Hill, under the direction of Jonathan Berry, rise to the occasion in Steppenwolf’s final production of its 2015/16 season, presenting a pitch-perfect production of Payne’s award-winning exploration of love, death, and possibility.
After a chance meeting at a BBQ – rewound and played with the same dialogue and slightly different acting choices – shy Roland (Jon Michael Hill) and foot-in-mouth Marianne (Jessie Fisher) begin dating one another. The phases of a relationship play out – the meet cute, the courting, the threat – but each with several possibility realities. A slightly different inflection, a different fact, a reversal of roles. The scenelettes might feel like two people recalling a memory slightly different ways, but Mr. Payne’s project is grounded in the science suggested by his title. As the physicist Marriane thankfully explains to her beau, in quantum mechanics, “Every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
In one reality, the two have called it quits and bump into one another at a ballroom class. Marianne has bought some of her beekeeper ex-boyfriend’s honey; Roland has downloaded one of his physicist ex-girlfriend’s papers. In another, Marianne degrades with a growing illness while her partner struggles to support. The contrast between levity and pathos reveal how dependent our reality is on chance.
So what is the role of human choice in this vast web of chance possibilities? Is a particular outcome inevitable? Are we able to alter our destiny? Mr. Payne’s theatrical experiment in theoretical physics potentially suggests an answer: although his characters on occasion seem trapped in the same scene, the actors make different acting choices, which carry the moment in different directions. The plot of our lives may already be set in stone, but our choices within that reality – inflection, delivery, and emotional connection with others – feel still in the realm of human control.
CONSTELLATIONS plays at Steppenwolf Theatre through the day before Independence Day. Click here to buy tickets.