At BTG's Unicorn Theatre, a love story that is both like and unlike any other
STOCKBRIDGE — At its heart, British playwright Nick Payne's "Constellations" is a conventional-seeming love story that charts the ups and downs, the fractures and the healing, in the relationship over an unspecified period of time between a beekeeper named Roland and a physicist named Marianne.
That may sound somewhat conventional but there is nothing all conventional about this extraordinary play that is being given an extraordinary, breathtakingly moving and accomplished production at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre.
"Constellations" — which premiered in London in November 2012 and was produced on Broadway in the winter of 2015 by Manhattan Theatre Club — is at once as simple and complex as its premise, as stated by the quantum physicist, Marianne (Kate Baldwin) during a date with the beekeeper, Roland (Graham Rowat).
In discussing three guiding principles of physics — relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory — Marianne posits the notion that "a by-product of every single one of these theories is the possibility that we're part of a multiverse." Certain "microscopic observations," she says, cannot be predicted with any certainty. And so, there is the possibility that "at any given moment, several outcomes can exist simultaneously.
"Let's say that ours really is the only universe that exists," she continues. "There's only one unique me and one unique you. If that were true, then there could only ever really be one choice. But if every possible future exits, then the decisions we do or don't make will determine which of these futures we actually end up experiencing. Imagine rolling a dice six thousand times."
And so, "Constellations" spends its intermissionless 65-minutes exploring Marianne's notion; what it would mean to play out, over time and memory, the possibilities, the seemingly infinite choices at any given moment in a relationship that begins with what appears to be a chance meeting at a mutual friend's barbecue and ends with Marianne and Roland arriving at a critical juncture.
Payne's script is spare. There is no physical description of setting; no suggestions about attitude or emotional tone as sequences repeat themselves only with different emotional stakes as Marianne and Roland traverse a landscape that is, by turns, comforting and treacherous.
At any given moment, the dynamics between Roland and Marianne shift. Trust gives way to betrayal. Their relationship is marked by vulnerability; caution; regret; shyness; awkwardness; tentative advances and painful, protective retreats; anger; pain; joy, discovery — nothing less than what it means to be human.
Baldwin and Rowat — married in real life — are no strangers to Berkshire Theatre Group's audiences. They've been seen together in two musicals — last season's "Bells Are Ringing" and, in 2014, "A Little Night Music," both at the Colonial. Here, under the first-time direction of actor Gregg Edelman — who also appeared in "A Little Night Music" — they show uncommon acting chops.
Each scene, each repetition, each replay, if you will, is a starting over, fresh, from scratch. Baldwin's meticulously and poignantly crafted Marianne is as girlish, coy, playful, witty and flirtatious as she is angry, resentful, confused, afraid, vulnerable — always curious. Even when the universe throws Marianne and Roland a huge curve ball, you can see Marianne's mind at work as she tries to fully understand and then deal with what is happening; sort through the choices that are facing her and the implications of those choices. Of all the situations Marianne and Roland endure over the course of "Constellations," this one situation tests the bond between them in the most unforgiving way.
Rowat is compelling as his Roland displays elements of charming boyishness (watch, for example, as he uses the life-cycle of the honeybee as the framework for a marriage proposal), compassion, awkwardness, anger, resentment, pride. The two work together seamlessly, one beginning where the other leaves off, as they portray two decent, smart, feeling people — no matter which universe they are in — who are each doing the best they can to navigate the often turbulent waters of nothing less than life itself.
As Marianne and Roland reach a certain point in their negotiations with life, starlike points of light begin pricking the darkness above them and us. To look up and around in the production's closing moments is to recall what it's like standing on the shore of the ocean on a crystal clear night and look up at a star-filled sky. The universe, in all its wonder, mystery, variety and infinite possibilities.
What: "Constellations" by Nick Payne. Directed by Gregg Edelman
With: Kate Baldwin, Graham Rowat
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge
When: Through Aug. 27. Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday and Saturday at 2
Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes (no intermission)
How: 413-997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office, 111 South St., Pittsfield; Fitzpatrick Main Stage box office, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge