Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Two Degrees" by Prime Productions at Guthrie Theater

In just their second production, new #TCTheater company Prime Productions (whose mission is "to explore, illuminate and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance," hooray!) brings us the regional premiere of the new play Two Degrees by Tira Palmquist. If their goal is to provide interesting and complex roles for women of a certain age that aren't that of merely the wife, mother, or best friend, then this play is a resounding success. Norah Long is one of our best actors, period, and it's wonderful to see her tackle the role of a smart, mature, vibrant, messy woman (think Shonda Rhimes heroines, but on stage). The play is a nice balance of stories global (i.e., the dangers of climate change, from whence comes the title) and personal.

Emma remembers her husband
(Norah Long and Joel Liestman,
photo by Dan Norman)
We meet Emma (that's paleoclimatologist Dr. Phelps to you) on a trip to Washington D.C. to testify before an advisory committee about her field, and why an increase in global temperature of more than 2 degrees could be catastrophic. Emma was invited by her friend and senator Louise, and is reeling from the recent death of her husband, taking comfort in what she thinks is a one-night stand with fellow visitor Clay. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Emma's work in Greenland, and the toll it took on her marriage. The play doles out the pieces of Emma's life puzzle slowly over the 90-minute runtime, until we have a complete picture of her. And Emma, too, rediscovers herself and a new way to live.

Director Shelli Place navigates the challenging time and space jumps (from Greenland to D.C.) well, and scenes flow smoothly from one to the next with clarity. I've already mentioned Norah Long and how fantastic she is in this role, creating a full, flawed, complex, sympathetic character. You feel every raw emotion that Emma goes through, from grief to anger to hope, and everything in between. She's supported by an excellent ensemble: Jennifer Whitlock as Emma's senator/friend, Toussaint Morrison as the charming Clay, and Joel Liestman as Emma's husband (in flashback) and several other characters. It's a strong quartet of actors, with brilliant featured soloist Norah Long.

Clay and Emma (Toissaint Morrison and Norah Long,
photo by Dan Norman)
But no, this is not a musical, despite having Norah Long and Joel Liestman in the cast. There is, however, lovely original music played during scene transitions (composed by Kevin Farrell). The versatile two-level set (designed by Anne Henly) transforms from a hotel room to a bar to a meeting room with the change of a few pieces, and a bed that slides in and out of the wall. Projections on the backdrop that could be a glacier or rumpled sheets help identify locations (designed by Andrew Saboe). And I'm particularly impressed with Emma's layered clothing that easily morph from one scene to the next as she rarely leaves the stage (designed by Jeni O'Malley).

the scientist and the senator (Norah Long and Jennifer Whitlock,
photo by Dan Norman)
Two Degrees is a smart, modern, relevant play that mixes the political with the personal in showcasing the story of a grown-up woman and all the complexities that entails. After what has been a pretty disheartening week (well, two years) for women, it's refreshing to see a story of smart, strong, capable women who have power and are listened to, even in Washington D.C.

Two Degrees continues through October 21 at the Guthrie Studio, with tickets just $9 as part of the Guthrie's Level Nine initiative. Trust me, you won't find a better ticket deal in town. And mark your calendars for Prime's next production, Marjorie Prime at Park Square Theatre next spring.