Pear Avenue's 'Space Is Blue' spins metaphors about families and physics
By Marianne Messina
IF YOU HAVE ever been lucky enough to observe kids at unsupervised play, I hope you missed the part where supervision arrived, and the world of monsters, heroines or pirates suddenly dissolved under this alien hegemony into some banal adult transliteration. You'll have a chance to witness the effect at Pear Avenue Theatre when adults exchange volleys of neurosis over the head of 12-year-old Philip in Gregory Meyer's thoughtful new play Space Is Blue (and the Birds Fly in It). Having developed an experimental cure for a crippling disease, Dr. Cheevy (Dean Burgi) needs proof from clinical trials. So he imports a willing subject, the young English orphan Philip—later referred to cynically as Cheevy's "data point" by humanities professor Corinne (Susan Jackson).
Cheevy installs Philip in the home of his friends, proprietress Helen (Mary Lou Torre) and her boarders, Corinne and physics grad student Walter (Rob Dario). Often, the adults don't hear Philip; they project onto him. Helen is overly solicitous before she even meets him. Then she frets, anticipates and compares him to a sad part of her past. Walter humors Philip through half a conversation before he finally starts to hear Philip's theory that gravity doesn't exist—it's just a form of acceleration. As Walter engages Philip, the young genius asserts that one implication of his theory is that mathematical axioms are the building blocks of the universe ("Logic is the fundamental particle").
The musical voice and bright presence of young George Murrell in the lead role act as a centripetal force for the four adults around him. Before the characters vet the idea of their being a family (dare I say "nuclear"), it's obvious that this story, in addition to being about physics, inspires physics metaphors. What keeps things together? What if the glue is not actually "real"? (Mercifully keeping to gravity, Meyer doesn't trouble our pretty heads with the weak force). Director Ann Kuchins recognizes the significance of the home as another kind of "center" by somehow inventing more space in this tiny theater to give the home a couple of alcoves, including a rear dining area that cozily engulfs the Algonquian Round (actually rectangular) Table for academic discussions.
With warm Oriental carpeting on wide board floors, the set provides a home both comfortably academic and well appointed. And like a salon, this home feels most alive when it's incubating ideas. Through Act 1, Philip sits in a wheel chair, a result of his worsening condition. In Act 2, after the operation yields a very mixed result, Kuchins has created a remarkable visual effect by seating the diminutive Philip on the couch, with the adults standing above him, arguing about him and ignoring his small-voiced input. This situates Philip, the character, in another of the play's metaphors, as a sphere off which the adults glance according to their individual tangents.
Delightful as young Philip, Murrell spouts theoretical principles so quickly it seems he's not only birthing ideas but animated by them. His retorts become particularly agile when he's verbally sparring with Walter. He brings to life a rare theatrical glimpse (thank you Gregory Meyer) of the academic's motivational thrill: opening an eye on a new paradigm.
Susan Jackson shines as the cynical but warm Hungarian professor Corinne in her leopard sandals and wide hip belts. Most comfortable with her place in academic life, Corinne acknowledges the "publish [or] perish" imperative as she, the aspiring Cheevy and the self-doubting Walter argue about validation in academia, poetry, science. Among other things, the play is a fascinating study of people's (academics' in particular) relationship to their sense of vitality. Unless I skipped the good ethics classes, pragmatic Cheevy's shift toward altruistic justice near play's end seems incomprehensible, and the "noble lie" ethical dilemma seems much ado about very little. Debates about outcomes swirling over the head of a boy who hasn't changed much in his core, if only someone would notice, underscore Philip's simple claim that the most important thing is right here, right now. Maybe in a play that postulates a universe shrinking since the big bang, the best image to take away is the simplest.
Space Is Blue (and the Birds Fly in It), a Pear Avenue Theatre production, shows Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through July 15 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10–$25. (650.254.1148)
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