Arts & Culture

Review: Lean Ensemble’s ‘Constellations’ a shining star of storytelling

Prentiss Standridge and Ian McCabe star in Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Constellations” by Nick Payne.
Prentiss Standridge and Ian McCabe star in Lean Ensemble Theater’s production of “Constellations” by Nick Payne. thefrenchguy photography

Bright, shining stars came together to create and deliver a poignant and powerful “Constellations” at Lean Ensemble’s production on the Main Street stage on opening night Thursday.

This play is a magical journey that defies boundaries. The stop-you-in-your-tracks, knock-out production actually compresses a series of lifetime events – good news, bad news, good decisions, bad decisions, choices, no choice and a load of misunderstandings – into a 70-minute evening of world-class theater.

British writer Nick Payne wrote the stunning, provocative play. Then, shortly after its United Kingdom giant win, Lean Ensemble Founding Artistic and Executive Director Blake White discovered the phenomenal play during a trip to New York. Intrigued, fascinated and determined, he saw to the scheduling and positioning of this many-layered theatrical event during this Lean Ensemble’s season. Still on his creative journey, he lined up Peggy Trecker White to direct and then sought out and signed up familiar Lean Ensemble actors Ian McCabe and Prentiss Standridge to feature in this unique theatrical project.

So Thursday night, the continuously amazing, astronomically astounding play opened at Main Street Theatre, and I must tell you that the provocative production about life, love and loss is a kind of comedy – you’ll laugh – but there is a seriously, serious bent – you might tear up. Through it all, you’ll come face to face with some personal questions – lots of what if’s, what if I had, what if he had – and you’ll take it all in against Nick Payne’s kind of leit motif of sophisticated theories – lots of sophisticated theories.

The evening flows in a kind of magical Instagram format, in which the actions of Marianne (Prentiss Standridge) and Roland (Ian McCabe), unfold briefly. You get the picture. Then the stage goes dark.

Moments later, the two are captured again, and they offer a brief interplay, as lighthearted or as serious as it can be. Lights out again. Then instantly, the two return in something of another iteration – or let’s say permutation, for our scientific, cosmic, parallel universe purposes. This is all soooo fascinating and compelling.

The piece, written in 2012 and performed first in England and then on Broadway in 2015, was an instant success and an immediate hit. There was overwhelming enthusiastic response, all echoed by critical acclaim and theatergoers’ responses. This is an amazing piece, which was offered masterfully by everyone involved.

It is not accidental that Payne titled his serious-yet-romantic comedy “Constellations.” There is so much more to his storyline than boy meets girl – a beekeeper and a quantum-physicist, respectively. Even a boy-meets-girl storyline, which at first sight offers a kind of “Groundhog Day”-ish approach, falls seriously short of its deeper impact. Really what follows is a glance, or often a closeup look, at the very same beekeeper and physicist in a series of stories. Again, here is Payne’s fascinating part: taking our story but playing it out in another universe.

Payne offers the multi-universe theory in physics as the story unfolds. Practically, he provided all of us the opportunity of considering what might have happened in our lives – if, in a nod to the permutations that might be experienced by the same couple in love, or not – in another universe!

Clearly, through it all and for our purposes, we must think relationships instead of quantum particles.

Katie Rasor, Lean Ensemble’s Dramaturge, reminds us that Payne rejects the idea that two people only have a single story. He prefers instead to create a portrait, in mosaic, of their relationship out of several variations on moments in their time together. Through the course of our evening, we took in over 45 amazing, brilliant, poignant multiverses – can you imagine? He challenges us to not try to pin down the real story, but to instead step back and take in the many permutations two people in love can create as one great constellation across space and time.

Prentiss Standridge offers the most heart-stirring – eloquent, really – performance as we view her through the series of permutations. The concept of her evolving portrayals is right on the mark. She is at once the singular, independent intellectual, then offering her response to emotional devastation. Ian McCabe will charm you with his nimble sense of humor, his postural attitudes, and his ultimate vulnerability.

The beauty and benefit to all of us as we absorb the actor’s sensitive delivery of “Constellations” is that Standridge and McCabe converge so impressively on their personal levels as they join in searching and exploring their common, universal truth: finding life, finding love, and losing love.

Peggy Trecker White offers thoughtful, intelligent, charismatic direction, which extracts from McCabe and Standridge giant portions of concern, caring, sincerity, intellectual dexterity, and great good humor. Her leit motif is communication, and she never lets us forget!

Supporting the incredible 70 minutes of permutations was the silvery, scientific setting created by Terry Cermak. So completely spot-on, the scientific and spiritual references – some permanent, some changing – established the most amazing frame of reference throughout the evening.

The most amazing 70 minutes of theater I can think of.

Artist, musician, teacher and writer Nancy K. Wellard focuses on portraying and promoting the cultural arts, first in Los Angeles and, for close to 30 years, in the Lowcountry. Email her at nancykwellard@gmail.com.

If you go

  • What: “Constellations”
  • Where: Main Street Theatre, 3000 Main St., Hilton Head Island
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26-28; 2 p.m. Oct. 29
  • Tickets, prices, details: 843-715-6676, leanensemble.org
  • Also: There will be a talk back — a conversation with the cast, crew and audience — following the performance.
  • Coming up: “Tea at Five,” Dec. 14-17; “Good People,” Jan. 25-Feb. 4; “The Importance of Being Earnest,” April 26-May 6
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