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Theater

Review: Eloquent 'Constellations' lights up Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago

Jessie Fisher (Marianne) (from left) and ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Roland) star
in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of "Constellations," written by Nick Payne and directed by Jonathan Berry. Constellations is playing through July 3 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.
Jessie Fisher (Marianne) (from left) and ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Roland) star in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of "Constellations," written by Nick Payne and directed by Jonathan Berry. Constellations is playing through July 3 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre.

The poet Robert Frost wrote: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both.” If you understand that message, then you are in a very good place for the play “Constellations,” now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Written by British playwright Nick Payne, “Constellations” won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play and was nominated in 2015 for a Tony Award. Through shifting scenes, it tells the playful, yet eloquent, story of two characters – Marianne, a brilliant London cosmologist, and Roland, a transplanted Wiltshire beekeeper, as they meet cute at a barbecue. Jessie delivers the best opening pickup line ever: “Do you know why it’s impossible for people to lick the tips of their elbows?” They then move from seduction to involvement to imminent death. Or perhaps not, but more on that later.

Jessie Fisher is a well-respected Chicago actress; I’ve seen her twice this year – as Emilia in “Othello” and Lizette in “The Heir Apparent.” She’s vibrant, disciplined, graceful and extremely focused in every nuance she delivers. Fisher’s Marianne’s growing difficulty in recalling words and formulating sentences is heartbreakingly realistic, but she displays great comedic chops as well.

Jon Michael Hill, recognizable for his recurring role in CBS’ “Elementary,” is a Steppenwolf Ensemble member. He plays Roland, the beekeeper, and is charming, good-looking smooth, sweet and just as disciplined and focused as Fisher.

This is a two-hander, as they say in the biz, and both of these actors are perfectly cast in their illustration of how hard it can be for two people to come together in this world and the importance of our ability to make choices. The amount of dialogue is incredible; neither actor is ever offstage.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Jonathan Berry masterfully and skillfully has directed this 80-minute piece. Skillfully because his work is choreographic with the well-paced scenes that continually back up for replays – alternate universes that give the characters another chance through the addition of words or a change in posture or vocal inflection. It’s not as complicated as that reads, but as an audience member you are required to listen closely as each layer is added. The possibilities of how a scene is going to end up are endless.

The set by Joe Schermoly is superbly and universally simple: a flattened cloud of grey, white, pink and blue surrounded by webbed rope netting that sizzles with electrical jolts with each scene change and shift. No furniture and no costume changes. And Christopher Kris’ unique sound and music design is an asset to the set design.

Ironically, constellations are never discussed or mentioned, but quantum mechanics, Einstein’s theory of relativity and string theory are. There’s also a captivating and amazing drop-in scene utilizing sign language, but relievedly and comprehensibly, it all makes sense.

“Constellations” is mysterious, witty, intelligent, hauntingly poignant and refreshingly different from anything you’re likely to see in the theater for awhile. Let it light up your sky.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.

“CONSTELLATIONS”

WHEN: Through July 3

WHERE: Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago

COST & INFO: Roland (a bee keeper) and Marianne (a theoretical physicist) meet at a party. In that single moment, an unfathomable multitude of possibilities unfold. An American Sign Language Interpretation showing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 17, an open-captioned showing for 3 p.m. June 25. Production is 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets range from $20 to $89. Tickets and information: 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org.

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