TAMPA — With the current state of things, the unlikely union in Heisenberg provides a refreshingly tender contrast to the divisiveness trolling our lives these days.
Playwright Simon Stephens even went so far to say in Oakland’s East Bay Times that "there’s a level of hope in Heisenberg and a level of kindness that is somehow politically radical."
Like the British playwright’s Tony-winning adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, his script for Heisenberg, now open at Tampa Repertory Theatre, deals with an outsider’s point of view. Two London immigrants see the world in surprising and revealing ways.
Stephens named his unflinching 2015 love story after physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg — not Walter White’s alias in Breaking Bad (though the German scientist inspired Bryan Cranston’s iconic character, too). Heisenberg is known for his principle of uncertainty, which says that if you know a single particle’s exact location, it is impossible to tell its speed or direction.
That’s the inescapable mystery hovering over 42-year-old Georgie Burns (Emilia Sargent) and 75-year-old Alex Priest (Michael Mahoney). Time is emphatically not on their side.
The play begins mid-conversation at St. Pancras railway station in London after Georgie impulsively kisses Alex on the neck, and from then on, we feel like we’re eavesdropping on them. The unlikely spark between this reserved butcher and audiophile from a small town in Ireland and a compulsively over-sharing middle-aged American isn’t easy to buy at first, but the two find an exquisite middle ground.
A thought-provoking plot twist leaves us wondering about their fate — and what we should believe to be true or fabricated — but we grow to care about the couple more as they become closer to one another. Thankfully, Stephens’ wit and honesty and Jim Sorensen’s careful direction keep the progressively intimate conversations from getting too cloying.
Tampa Rep’s production of Heisenberg, the first in the bay area, also lends to the coziness of the show with its clever use of a traverse stage, which positions the audience on two sides, facing toward each other. In this format, we sometimes see the back of heads during crucial moments, but the actors are directed to move about so one side of the theater isn’t at a visual disadvantage more than the other. Mahoney and Sargent change set pieces in a graceful flow to Igor Santos’ lovely score. Cheryl Lee choreographs a sweet tango.
Sorensen, known for his work as operations manager at American Stage in St. Petersburg, elicits emotion from the actors and makes us like them. He works with them to offset the intense moments by showcasing each performer’s uncanny gift for micro moments. We see Sargent just gaze with unabashed devotion and Mahoney effuse a heart-grabbing gratitude, both transcending anything in the script.
You can’t help but love a play that dares to be the antithesis of what an American non-theatergoer will tolerate — a bare-bones, two-character emotional exchange. Try selling that at the next football-watching party.
Sargent engenders empathy for an outspoken middle-aged woman lead — one of the most under-celebrated character types on stage and on screen. Mahoney, alternately, has that lovable gift of subtlety and charisma that belies age. He just breathes and it comes across as poignant or funny, or both. That’s not to say he doesn’t shine during more impassioned moments.
Jo Averill-Snell’s effective lighting lovingly sets the mood. The minimal staging, as dictated by the playwright, uses a couple of chairs and tables. That’s it. In one scene, Ikea tables double as a bed.
It’s worth mentioning that Heisenberg is a one-act but full-length play, a format gaining popularity. It’s around 15 minutes to a half-hour shorter than an average play, doesn’t interrupt the momentum of the performance and keeps you safely parked in a two-hour spot. The possibility of a parking ticket is something we can all do without.