Bell rings with truth, a fitting tribute
The tribute to the life-loving and life-changing inventor Alexander Graham Bell would be welcome on any stage but feels very much at home in the Grosvenor Auditorium, where National Geographic Live is debuting the new one person play, their first foray into theatre production.
The National Geographic Society is celebrating its first 125 years and Bell is a fitting tribute to the legacy of the society which can boast Dr. Bell as its second president.
The winning team of writer Jim Lehrer, actor Rick Foucheux, and director Jeremy Skidmore have patented an inventive and entertaining theatrical portrait filled with history, humor and heart. Seasoned theatregoers, fans of science, parents and children should all find something to love in Bell.
Framed by the great man’s dying moments with his beloved wife Mabel, and motivated by his fear of only being remembered as “the telephone man,” Bell reflects on his life and accomplishments. But this is no stuffy lecture; Aleck, as he was known by his closest friends, is not about pomp and reverence. Within Lehrer’s conceit, Bell the man is an open book, and Foucheux’s effortless performance is a perfect match of character and actor.
Bell unfolds the highlights of his life like one of the hundreds of diagrams that litter his lived-in office, recreated with creative flair through Tony Cisek’s set design. As a history lesson, Bell blows the dust off of “the telephone man” and expands our knowledge of the Scottish-born, all American inventor. In fact, Bell’s telephone debuted in 1876, when he was 29, which left many more years for his long marriage, his work with educating the deaf, his obsession with powered flight, and geographic knowledge.
Lehrer, a veteran newsman and experienced playwright, weaves a story that balances the essential facts from Bell’s fame with personal anecdotes. We all may have a vague memory from school about the pivotal day when Bell, speaking into the transmitter, said to his assistant, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Lehrer’s play gives us a glimpse at the high stakes circumstances Bell and Watson were up against, trying to get their version of the telephone patented before rival Elisha Gray and many others who were all racing against time.
Perhaps true Bell buffs were aware of the doctor’s role in trying to assist with President James Garfield’s recovery from gunshot wounds. Garfield’s fate is well known, as the second president to be assassinated. I was not familiar with Bell’s attempt to ascertain the location of one of the bullets through the use of an electrical invention and the recreation of the episode was an exceptional highlight of Bell, a compelling combination of staging, lighting, and Foucheux’s sweat-soaked, high stakes performance.
Lehrer is also not afraid to go for laughs, which Foucheux handles superbly, as he orders the audience to take out their mobile versions of his most lasting legacy and insists they turn them back on, answer them if they ring and even Tweet about the show. From what I could observe, most members of the audience left their smart phones and cell phones off. But there was that one guy whose ringtone seemed to go on for seven minutes.
Closes September 21, 2013
National Geographic Society,
1600 M Street, NW
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Thursdays thru Saturdays
Details and tickets
The eugenics segment felt a bit like the 500 pound gorilla in the room that had to be dealt with. I imagine it will be the most talked about section of the show, since in some circles Bell remains a figure of renown, while for others he is looked upon now as a pariah.
As staged by Skidmore and aided by Cisek’s scenic design, and the lighting and projections of Dan Covey and Jared Mezzocchi, Bell works some theatrical magic moving through time and evoking some of the inventor’s greatest moments.
Foucheux, complete with fulsome beard and a head of snow white hair, slips into the great man’s skin, displaying grace even as Bell boasts about his accomplishments. The solo actor offers up a loving glimpse of a man who loved life, wanted to improve the lot of others, and loved his wife until his dying day. Much more than the telephone man, if you ask me.
Bell by Jim Lehrer. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Featuring Rick Foucheux as Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Set Designer: Tony Cisek. Costume and Prop Designer: Marie Schneggenburger. Lighting Designer: Dan Covey. Projection Designer: Jared Mezzocchi. Sound Designer: Matthew Nielson. Assistant Costume and Prop Designer: Lucy Hinton. StageManager: Roy A. Gross. Assistant Director: Katie Ryan. Produced by National Geographic Live. Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.