Playwright: Nick Payne
At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Tickets: 312-335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org; $20-$89
Runs through: July 3
It may only last 80 minutes, but British playwright Nick Payne sure does pack in plenty in his thoughtful and heartbreaking 2012 drama Constellations. Now making a strong Chicago debut in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, Constellations wows because it rapidly fires on so many neurological synapses.
At its basic level, Constellations is a two-hander about a modern British couple consisting of a theoretical physicist named Marianne ( Jessie Fisher ) and a professional beekeeper named Roland ( Jon Michael Hill ). But with these two, Payne constructs an expansive universe of randomness ( and a lot of comic relief ) from parallel-world possibilities via speedy repetition and variations.
Payne provides an inordinate amount of second-guessing to how things could have or might have been between Roland and Marianne based upon a number of factors. These could range from whether one chooses to laugh at a ribald joke or how busy she might be at work on a particular day.
But crucially, the audience comes to care for these initially mismatched people who fall in ( and out ) of love. Alas, a debilitating and hard-wired illness is foreshadowed and eventually revealed, forcing both Marianne and Roland to consider a panoply of tough choices in how to cope with it.
Now Hill and Fisher truly get a dramatic workout respectively performing Roland and Marianne. Because the snappy script contains so many repeated lines, Constellations must have been a nightmare to memorize. But the two play off each other compellingly and keep each other crucially on track. They also add plenty of layers, especially when you question whether the characters are being truthful or saying outright lies to each other.
Under the assured direction of Jonathan Berry, Hill and Fisher both illuminate the many complexities of Constellations. But crucially, all three delve into the emotions that either bursts out in gales or lies hidden depending upon each individual dramatic beat.
Set designer Joe Schermoly creates a basic playing area that is highly suggestive of an abstracted sliced section of a brain. And with the aid of lighting designer Heather Gilbert, clusters of oversize ropes suggest nerves that electrically glow for racing thoughts or bodily impulses.
As involving as Marianne and Roland's life-and-death love story is in Constellations, Payne's drama also has the potential to prod audiences to contemplate their own existence and relationships that may have formed just as much by chance or randomness. Constellations is a heady and challenging work, but thankfully the cast and crew at Steppenwolf are more than up to the task of illustrating all its glorious intricacies and variables.