Alan Lightman wrote his novella, Einstein's Dreams, by placing himself inside the physicist who stunned the world with his masterful thesis on Time and Relativity. But Lightman did not attempt to simply enter Einstein's head; he also entered the genius' heart and soul as well. By creating what he saw as happening, not just in Einstein's research, but in his life and dreams, Lightman entered a world that he was probably unprepared for; but he translated it into a work of such momentous proportions that perhaps even the subject himself would be impressed.
Kipp Cheng adapted this work into a stage play, sculpting it into a production scarcely an hour or so long; but he takes the essence of Lightman's impressionistic style and turns it into movement, shifting back and forth between Einstein's reality, his research, and his dreams, in such a way as to create a staging that is not so much a drama as it is a dance. All three segments of his life move forward simultaneously, as theory after theory is produced, presented, and then incorporated into the final, exquisite equation that earned Albert Einstein the Nobel Prize in Physics: E = mc2.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presented Einstein's Dreams in its second season, after exploding onto the Raleigh theater scene with staggering and compelling works like Rat in the Skull and Pentecost. Einstein’s Dreams was just as intense. Burning Coal has brought the play back to the stage as a part of its current 10th season, playing this performance in the Leggett Theatre on the campus of Peace College. Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis, writing in the program as notes for this production, wonders if the show still plays as compellingly as it did then. The answer is a resounding "YES!"
Burning Coal has asked the play's original director, Rebecca Holderness, to return for this production. Holderness has directed a total of seven, with this show eight, plays for the company. She has kept the basic premise of the original staging; and a scant set consisting of a desk, a chalk-board, and several stick chairs has been repeated, along with the analytical arrangement of 20 clear, hand-blown light bulbs suspended overhead, each with its own pull chain. These lights are manually switched on and off throughout the show, one light, one idea, flashing on and then off again, being replaced with the spark of another. She has reduced the cast from 16 to 14, perhaps in acquiescence to the smaller stage, but other than that this show remains as effervescent, as sparkling as it did ten years ago, even to the viewer who has seen them both.
For this production, Cliff Campbell, an actor and playwright from New York City, plays Einstein. Interestingly, while he is the title role, Einstein is not, necessarily, the lead of this production. That role goes to Liserl (Quinn Hawkesworth), the name of both Einstein's typist, and also—in Einstein's dreams—the daughter he never knew. Liserl is, as much as anyone in the ensemble, the narrator of this work. The father of two boys, Einstein supposedly had a daughter by his wife, Mileva (Rosa Wallace); but the child was "lost," perhaps placed in an orphanage, as the two were not married at the time. His boys, Hans (Stephen LeTrent) and Eduard (John Moletress), are both fully grown in this show, though in reality Eduard is not yet born.
Through Einstein's three ongoing lives we learn eight different theories as Einstein might have presented them. We, as those who might hear Einstein as he presents these theories to the scientific community, are asked to imagine Time—Einstein's obsession—as having different characteristics. Because we learn each theory through his dreams, we see "images," expertly described and defined, as Einstein himself sees them, never really knowing whether he sees them in his dreaming, or his waking, state. These images form Einstein's life, both real and imagined. His best friend, Eduard Besso (David Coulter), with whom the 26-year-old Einstein works at a patent office, will later commit suicide. His wife, Ana (Gabrieal Griego), by that time has left him. All of these images, like the eight distinct theories he sees, connect, collide, intermix, fuse, and re-form. From this blank set, these seven characters, and an expertly choreographed ensemble of seven more, literally dance about the stage, telling and retelling these dreams as young Einstein sees them.
In bringing together a stellar ensemble, Burning Coal has selected both company members and diverse Triangle talent. Noelle Barnard (company) lives in Raleigh; Randi Winter will graduate the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill next year. Jeffrey Dillard (UNC-G) next plays Manbites Dog; George Jack (company) just closed Burning Coal's 1776. Danjila Lazarevic is a new talent, Jim Sullivan has a long and varied theatrical career, and Julianne Rowan hails from Wake Forest but graduated the prestigious East 15 acting school in London.
This show's 1998 production was a smash hit for Burning Coal; every indication is that it will far outdo its previous incarnation. A tremendously robust and dynamic ensemble brings this play to the stage at a magnificent level, and beautifully presents a work at the same time nebulous, poetic, and entirely concrete. E = mc2 is universally known; but these theories, each of which may have contributed to the final outcome, are brilliantly new. It is a play that will captivate you, if you are wise enough to be sure to see it.
Burning Coal Theatre Company, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, presents Einstein's Dreams Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 6-9 and 13-16, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 10 and 17, at 2 p.m. in the Leggett Theatre on the second floor of the Main Building, Peace College, 15 East Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16 ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 Wednesdays and $10 for groups of 10 or more. 919/834-4001 or etix through the presenters website. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/Einstein%20Page.htm [inactive 8/07].