Steppenwolf’s remarkable two-hander explores love, mortality, and relativity.

Jessie Fisher and Jon Michael Hill as Marianne and Roland in Nick Payne's Constellations, directed by Jonathan Berry, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Jessie Fisher and Jon Michael Hill as Marianne and Roland in Nick Payne's Constellations, directed by Jonathan Berry, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

The beginning of a new romance always seems to have infinite possibilities. It's an exhilarating feeling. The Chicago premiere of Nick Payne's Constellations takes a look at that idea via quantum mechanics and string theory. A romance unfolds at Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theater, from the first blush of courtship to any number of endings.

Marianne, a physicist (Jessie Fisher), approaches beekeeper Roland (Jon Michael Hill) at a barbecue. Maybe Roland is married. Maybe he's not. Maybe they'll hit it off. Maybe they'll argue. If they hit it off, then maybe Marianne will invite Roland back to her place. Maybe she won't. Maybe they'll sleep together. If they like each other, maybe they'll move in together. Maybe they'll marry. Maybe one day, far too early, Marianne will have trouble speaking. Maybe she'll start get tired. Maybe Roland will come with Marianne as she makes a monumental decision, maybe he won't. Every possibility is shown. And perhaps, as Marianne suggests when she breathlessly explains the theory of the multiverse to Roland early in their courtship, many possibilities are lived.

For this tight and intimate play, Steppenwolf could not have found a better pair of actors than Jessie Fisher and Jon Michael Hill. They imbue even 10-second scenes with the same depth and care they give to long, technical monologues on the mating cycle of bees or quantum mechanics. As Roland, Hill is down-to-earth and responsive. It isn't a showy role, but Hill proves himself a strong and steady leading man. Fisher's performance as Marianne is among the best performances in Chicago this year. Her struggles with speaking never seem performative, and her frank vulnerability is disquieting.

Joe Schermoly's set is a broad gray curve, suggesting the interior of a skull, a lump of clay, or perhaps an asteroid. It is surrounded by large, crackling webs that resemble synapses, beehives, or constellations themselves. The curve of the stage is a bed, or a couch, or an office wall. The minimalism never feels empty, thanks in part to Heather Gilbert's phenomenal lighting and Christopher Kriz's buzzing, pulsing sound and music.

Jonathan Berry directs with clarity, dexterously guiding Fischer and Hill through a labyrinth of dialogue. Scene fragments repeat themselves verbatim, sometimes several times over, differentiated only by nuances of performance. Snippets of dialogue, at first mysterious, find new meaning when seen in a larger context. Though very cerebral, Nick Payne's script never feels too esoteric, partly due to its tight 75-minute runtime. Repetition, after all, can only keep an audience rapt for so long.

As Constellations nears its end, Marianne tries to comfort Roland with a meditation on the theory of the multiverse "We have all the time we've always had," Marianne insists. Roland, ever the pragmatist, doesn't care whether time is linear. He just wants more time with Marianne. How appropriate that the play ends so soon, leaving so many possibilities tantalizingly unexplored.

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Closed: July 3, 2016