Coming together in an improbable encounter are Georgie (Erika Schindele), an uninhibited American in her early 40s, and Alex (Paul Whitworth) a staid Irishman in his mid-70s.
They might as well be from two different planets, as we quickly discover at the tempestuous start of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, the vibrant opening production of the Jewel Theatre’s long overdue 2021 season. So randomly implausible is their meeting—much less their ensuing entanglement—that they might as well be acting out a version of quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
In fact, they are. Playwright Simon Stephens argues that none of us can possibly know how or when random occurrences can alter our well-ordered world. Think of it as a high-concept variation of screwball comedy: a wacky woman pursues an inhibited man and overthrows his world—and hers—in the process. Two radically unsuited people collide, clash, and invariably begin adjusting themselves until, well, I won’t reveal the ending. Heisenberg flirts with that cliché just enough to catch us off-guard, and then sets up a whiplash trajectory.
From the moment she encounters Alex, Georgie gushes, confesses, vacillates, and refuses to be pinned down. Written by the British Stephens as a stereotypically uninhibited American woman, Georgie swears constantly, gestures impulsively and changes moods pathologically. “I’m a waitress, no I’m not, yes I am,” she tells Alex. Heisenberg himself would smile at the very idea of us trying to predict the behavior of any human being. Certainly not Georgie, as finessed by an adroit and kinetic Schindele.
Just as we grow used to the idea that Georgie is a wildly dysfunctional but worldly character, the playwright reveals Alex’s own eccentricities, and his sophistication about life, sex, love, and music. To hear Paul Whitworth enumerate the seemingly endless styles of music his character enjoys—from rock ’n’ roll to classical to rap to dubstep—is to be enchanted. By the end of the play, the colliding characters have almost exchanged places, each awakening to the random possibilities of an unpredictable world. It’s hard to grasp that you’re watching actors, rather than eavesdropping on two people transform impossibility into transformative grace.
Schindele brings aerobic energy to her role as a loose cannon in this artful and entertaining production. Her nonstop outpourings of half-truths and expletive-infused guesses ricochet against the bemused quirks of Paul Whitworth’s Alex. She might be nuts, he might be lonely. She might be missing a son, he might talk to his dead sister. Along with the audience, the two of them have to guess when and if the other is telling the truth—or what that might even mean. The pace accelerates when Alex responds to Georgie’s abrupt sexual overtures. And some of the finest scenes between the two actors happen in the intimate moments they both relish in the play’s center. We are as surprised as they are at their happy collision, however temporary it may be.
What a pleasure to see Paul Whitworth take the stage again. Just to hear his astonishing voice, grown lower in pitch over the years, is akin to inhaling a snifter of fine single malt. While his Irish accent occasionally wanders, his control of face and hands—every movement—is rich with nuance. Whitworth has an uncanny ability to embody the act of listening; I’ve never seen an actor do so with more ferocity, care and wit than he does in Heisenberg. The two actors work seamlessly together, speaking and moving continuously throughout the production. The satisfying and spare set design by Andrea Bechert becomes a train-station bench, a butcher counter, a restaurant table, a bed, and a desk. These appear and disappear through a few deft moves by the players.
Smart lighting design by Kent Dorsey and fine direction by Paul Mullins add to the lingering spell of Heisenberg, the start of a theater season we’ve missed for so long.
As the chaos of opposing paces and purposes begins to synchronize, the play heads toward into a surprise dance of closure. As in quantum physics, things aren’t where we look for them, and when we look too closely, they disappear. Applying this metaphor to the collisions of two unlikely people, Heisenberg reverberates long after the lights have come up.
‘Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle,’ starring Paul Whitworth and Erika Schindele, plays at the Jewel Theatre through October 10.