- Theories of the Sun
- By Kathleen Akerley
- Produced by Longacre Lea
- Directed by Kathleen Akerley and Jonathon Church
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Having already established herself as a premium Washington-area actor and director, Kathleen Akerley has now written a startlingly good play – not about playwriting and literature, as you may have been led to believe, but about the sweetness of life itself, and the need for its closing in order to give it meaning.
It is true that Tom Stoppard (Dylan Pinter) and Tennessee Williams (an absolutely superb Michael Glenn) appear as supporting characters, but more as literary tom-toms exemplifying the play’s passion and fierce intelligence than as narrative forces. The real story is about Elizabeth Sweeny (Abby Wood), a woman with a baffling medical disorder who travels to a small hotel in France to meet with a famous diagnostician (Jason Lott). Barbara Sweeny (Akerley), traveling as her mother, and Elizabeth agree not to tell the doctor her symptoms, so that he can devise a diagnosis from his observations only. You may be tempted to try a diagnosis yourself. Forget it. When her condition is revealed, you will be absolutely shocked.
While waiting for the doctor to reach his conclusion, Elizabeth passes her time in conversation with Mr. Asher (Michael John Casey), a scholar whose special study is the Sun mythologies of ancient peoples. He tells these stories – the Sun as a hunter believing himself to be following a straight line through the Universe when he is in fact circling the Earth; a different Sun rising and circling the Earth each day, only to fall into cold blackness after sunset – with a passion and conviction seemingly designed to bring the warmth of the Sun itself to Elizabeth’s barren heart. It does not work, though – again, for reasons you will not begin to imagine.
This is a huge, complex piece of work, in which fine actors are given the opportunity to render substantial, detailed characterizations. Lott is particularly notable as the Clouseauvian Dr. Giraud, whose accent and gestures recall the great Peter Sellers, but who nonetheless creates a completely original persona on stage. The two actors who take on the characters of the playwrights are likewise superbly accomplished. Pinter – could an actor who carries the names of two great writers fail to do justice to a third? – imbues Stoppard with a delightful sort of mischievous energy. As Akerley writes him, and Pinter plays him, Stoppard shows the kind of playfulness we see in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the complexity that comes out in Coast of Utopia.
Glenn is a revelation as Tennessee Williams. Now, twenty-five years after his death, we tend to think of Williams as an overripe cantaloupe, marinated in booze and self-pity, but in his time he was a vital man, decisive and full of ideas. Glenn shows us this Williams, and he brightens the stage every time he steps on it.
Notwithstanding its serious subject matter, there is great wit, dry and subtle, to the writing. You will have to be alert for it. Watching Williams down Scotch after Scotch in lieu of dinner, Dr. Giraud pronounces him to be the victim of morbidity. “I tend to think of it as monogamy”, Stoppard replies.
The direction is crisp, inventive and full of atmospherics. Characters sometimes dance without apparent motivation; this dancing becomes some of the most beautiful moments in the play (Heather Haney is the choreographer). At other times the characters stop suddenly in their tracks, or move in slo-mo, or suddenly speed up. Periodically Elizabeth will be talking to one character and another character will suddenly substitute himself. I cannot discern the narrative motivation for these changes, but they move the story along well, and they are wonderful to watch.
There are a few things about the play I wish were different. It is, to begin with, three hours long. Stoppard can write long plays (Coast of Utopia requires a dinner break) but it is not a privilege afforded to other playwrights, and the production seems conscious of the need to speed things along. This does not work to the advantage of Casey, who rushes to deliver his complex speeches. At one point, for example, he tells a story involving different dialects, but he does not always return immediately to his normal speech after the dialect ends. This appears to me a consequence of the speed at which he delivers the lines.
Jason Stiles, doing his usual fine work, plays a mysterious American whose name is either Bob or Etienne, or maybe something else. His identity remains a puzzle right to the very end. Without giving away too much of the plot, it is unclear why he remains after the play’s denouement, and his bit of dialogue with Barbara only deepens the uncertainty.
But these are relatively minor points in derogation of a truly fine, satisfying production. Theories of the Sun is a four-course meal in a cozy intimate French hotel of a theater. Bring your appetite.
- Running Time: Three hours
- When: Wednesdays through Sundays until September 7. Sunday shows are at 2; all other shows 7.30.
- Where: Callan Theatre of the Catholic University of America, 3801 Harewood Rd., Washington, D.C.
- Tickets: Wednesdays pay what you can; Thursdays and Sundays $15; Fridays and Saturdays $18; Students and Seniors with ID $3 discount. Order on the website.