My feelings about Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, now receiving its area premiere at Delaware Theatre Company (DTC), are summed up in a line spoken by Georgie Burns, the play’s mercurial central character: “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”
Yes, Georgie. I really do.
As played by Karen Peakes under Matt Pfeiffer’s sensitive, detail-oriented direction, Georgie emerges as someone both hard to love and impossible to resist. The audience experiences her in much the same way as Alex Priest (played by Bud Martin, also DTC’s executive director), the unassuming stranger drawn into her orbit after she impulsively kisses his neck at a London train station.
Like Alex — a 75-year-old Irish butcher whose soft-spoken exterior contains multitudes — we recognize the allure of this charming, vivacious, and incredibly loquacious American expat. The more she talks, the less we know about her.
Georgie stocks her speeches with unapologetically spun tall tales brimming with conviction, even as her logorrhea grows increasingly exasperating. Don’t be surprised if you spend most of the production’s 85 breathless minutes parsing the confounding emotional reaction she so effortlessly provokes.
But in many ways, that’s the point of Heisenberg, which often feels more like a tone poem than a play. Stephens puts two intriguing, unlike voices in counterpoint, inviting the viewer to interrogate the sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant sounds they make.
His title evokes Werner Heisenberg’s famous theory that “nothing had a definite position, a definite trajectory, or a definite momentum.” He uses his characters to show that chaos can interrupt even the most seemingly secure path.
Intimacy by design
Much of the play’s pleasure comes from watching Georgie and Alex discover the subtle but intricate ways they complement each other. The reasons behind Georgie’s fabulations grow increasingly clear as Alex shows her kindness and understanding. We begin to see the wounds that fester beneath her proudly boastful exterior. Aided by Pfeiffer’s masterful sense of pacing, which gradually reduces the fever-pitch start to a simmer, Peakes finds the aching humanity in a woman whose life contains more tragedy than she wants to admit.
Georgie, in turn, draws Alex out from the protective shell he’s created. He uses silence and solemnity to keep people at a distance in much the same way she uses bombast and braggadocio. Unfortunately, some of the marvelous subtleties embedded in the role are lost in Martin’s competent but uninspired performance.
The moments that require Alex to turn on a dime — where his sorrow or anger briefly pierce his placid surface — seem overly calculated here. I sense that a more experienced actor could do more to color Alex’s laconic dialogue and abundant pauses in ways that suggest his inner life.
Although Peakes and Martin are not always on equal footing, the kinetic attraction Georgie and Alex feel is rarely eclipsed. This is partly due to the smart ways Pfeiffer and production designer Dirk Durossettte have reconfigured DTC’s cavernous auditorium. Rather than using a classic proscenium staging, the audience is placed in a three-quarter thrust around Durossette’s mostly bare set. It almost feels as if we’re eavesdropping on Georgie and Alex. Thom Weaver’s warmly atmospheric lighting and Michael Kiley’s ambient, romantic original music contribute to the couple’s private world.
That sense of intimacy also owes much to Stephens. In Heisenberg, he upends the traditional meet cute and shows us how messy, frustrating, surprising, and satisfying the connection between two people can be. Exhausting? Sure. But also captivating.