Empty Space | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Empty Space




Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

Watching Tina Landau's philosophical meditation on psychology and astronomy is like staring up at a starry sky: gazing at the moon and planets and constellations tends to make the earth--including Landau's play--seem pretty damned insignificant. Unable to support the weight of its philosophical aspirations, Space is beautiful but sometimes visually overwhelming in this Steppenwolf production.

Until recently, theater at Steppenwolf has almost always represented the triumph of substance over style. Growing away from its ferocious and messy youth, the company settled into a comfortable, respectable middle age but still sporadically integrated some of its early rock 'n' roll roots with six-figure production values. Landau's Space, however, reflects the company's disturbing recent tendency to subordinate text and performance to lavish effects.

In Space writer-director Landau empties her bag of theatrical tricks with a flair that would make Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn envious. John Boesche's projections of planets and skyscapes onto a massive curved back wall have the stunning three-dimensional feel of scenes from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in Cinerama. Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn's re-creations of sound in deep space echo throughout the theater like Sensurround. James Schuette's beautiful, stark set wittily refers to Alice in Wonderland. And in Scott Zielinski's breathtaking lighting design, a revolving disco ball not only rotates the image of a night sky around the theater but casts a shadow against the back wall that resembles a solar eclipse. But aside from its spectacular sky-show trappings, Space is surprisingly inconsequential and underdeveloped. Take away a few zeroes from the budget and put the show in Voltaire and you'd have a hard time keeping more than a few people beyond intermission.

Unfortunately this heavily researched, splendidly acted, brilliantly realized show remains largely uninvolving. It begins with a voice-over that's part Mighty Oz and part Britannica educational film, ponderously reciting from Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, and Dante on literary journeys through supernatural realms. Though Landau's sensible, earthbound protagonist doesn't tumble through a rabbit hole or lose his way in a wood, nor is he visited by any Christmas ghosts, the noted university lecturer and psychologist Allan Saunders (Tom Irwin) does embark on his own journey to self-knowledge when he encounters three new patients who separately claim to have been abducted by aliens. Unable to find any satisfactory psychological explanation, Saunders--a rational man who's always balked at the supernatural--ventures into an astronomy research lab at the university. Here the lupus-stricken Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon (Amy Morton) and her sullen assistant Carl (Daniel Smith) scan the night sky with computers, trying to initiate contact with some form of extraterrestrial life.

Cannon is every inch Saunders's opposite, and as opposites will do in theater and in space, they attract. Where Saunders trembles at his insignificance in the face of an infinite universe, Cannon almost luxuriates in it. Where knowledge infuses Saunders with a sense of power, for Cannon it instills humility. And it is through his blossoming friendship with Cannon that Saunders is able to gain the understanding that the universe cannot be fully understood, that all phenomena do not have rational explanations, and that the only thing we can ever know is that we don't know anything at all. As Saunders falls in love with the almost otherworldly Cannon, gaining a new sense of contentment and self-knowledge, his deep emotional attachment directly parallels his patients' longing to rejoin the alien beings they've encountered. In Landau's vision, all spiritual journeys are searches for love, whether it's Saunders's passion for Cannon, his patients' quest to rejoin the white light of an alien world, or Dante's journey to attain the divine light of Beatrice and Christ.

On paper, this is great material for a play--or at least a fine university lecture. Landau's script is sprinkled with a fair sampling of wisdom from great Western thinkers as well as a few intriguing nuggets of her own. The words of Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and Stephen Hawking are invoked (and illustrated with additional exquisite projections), and Landau cleverly links Cannon's lupus with the debilitating ailments suffered by all four scientists, suggesting that the process of gaining knowledge of the universe is so existentially powerful that it cripples those who attempt it. Landau's pop-culture references range from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert; in the program she cites the influence of Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell, and Arthur C. Clarke, among others.

Landau has also ingeniously structured her play to represent the notion, expressed by one of the characters, that time is merely a device we've invented to prevent us from seeing that everything happens at once. With this in mind, everything in Landau's play does indeed seem to happen at once. Characters fall into dream states and have vivid experiences only to wake and find that no time has passed at all. Speeches intersect and overlap, settings change without warning, and statements left unfinished in one scene are completed in another as the script seems to go forward, step back, and stand still all at the same time.

The problem is that Landau has not devised an adequate plot or characters to illustrate her extensive research or to compete with the sense of wonder created by her design team. Saunders's identification with his patients as he increasingly acknowledges what he may never know seems a facile, cliche-ridden rewrite of the psychiatrist Dysart's lurid fascination with his patient in Peter Shaffer's far more philosophically challenging Equus. And though it would be unfair to expect Landau's dialogue to compete with the handpicked words of brilliant scientists and philosophers, one still hopes for better than her hackneyed references to "Starship Earth" and incongruous musical numbers encouraging our hero to look "beyond the rainbow."

More disconcerting is Landau's tendency to give pat psychological explanations for her characters' behavior after having maintained that such explanations are unacceptable. Cannon's fascination with finding extraterrestrial life is too readily explained by a childhood trauma in which she saw her father's plane crash, a connection uncomfortably similar to one supposedly accounting for a scientist's fascination with tornadoes in the paint-by-numbers film Twister. And it's a cheap ploy for Landau to finally explain one patient's close encounter with extraterrestrials in TV movie-of-the-week fashion as the result of being sexually abused in childhood.

Irwin, a wonderful actor, does an excellent job of making the neurotic, hubristic Dr. Saunders a fascinating and sympathetic figure. And Morton is a worthy and intelligent teacher. But by making Irwin's star turn the focus of the play and telling the all-too-familiar story of a pompous academic discovering humility while pursuing knowledge, Landau sacrifices a number of more interesting strands in the plot: personally I'd rather have followed the struggles of Saunders's flaky patients than those of the good doctor himself. But in any case not a single character onstage is ever developed enough to compete with the laser light show going on in the background, a situation that rather disturbingly echoes our insignificance in the incomprehensible universe. And given the choice, I'd rather watch the night sky through a telescope than stare at the back wall of the Steppenwolf stage, however brilliantly it's done up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Michael Boslow.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →