REVIEW: The Farnsworth Invention (TimeLine Theatre)

Timeline production rises above Sorkin’s flawed script

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TimeLine Theatre presents
 
The Farnsworth Invention
 
written by Aaron Sorkin
directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru June 13th  |  tickets: $25-$35 |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

What better way to end the most successful season in Timeline’s thirteen year history than with the Chicago premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s tribute to exploration, The Farnsworth Invention? Their last Chicago premiere, The History Boys, had a six month sold-out run unlike anything the theater had ever seen, sweeping the Jeff FarnsworthInvention_172 Awards and kick-starting a season that would see Timeline exploring new possibilities in the wake of commercial success. Their regular performance space occupied by the oft-extended History Boys, Timeline ventured into a new venue, mounting an acclaimed revival of All My Sons (our review ★★★★) at Greenhouse Theater Center, and the theater’s first venture into South Africa, Master Harold…and the Boys (our review ★★★½), would lead to a business partnership with Remy Bumppo and Court Theatre for Fugard Chicago 2010.

At the end of a landmark year, The Farnsworth Invention is not only a celebration of Timeline’s consistency as a company, but a promise to explore the possibilities of modern theater. Nick Bowling directs a polished production that moves like clockwork, with an ensemble that understands the emotional currents underneath the witty repartee and academic jargon of Sorkin’s writing, giving the production a heart beyond what is written in the problematic script.

Sorkin criticizes current broadcasting practices as he chronicles the lives of radio pioneer David Sarnoff (PJ Powers) and television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Rob Fagin), which sounds like a good idea for an essay, but doesn’t quite lend itself to character development and fully realized relationships. The personal tragedies that undo Farnsworth don’t receive much focus, failing to resonate when overshadowed by the massive amounts of scientific and historical knowledge needed to advance the plot. Granted, a staged essay written by Aaron Sorkin is still better than the majority of theater fare, but many of the particularly soapboxy passages feel like rehashed material from the writer’s previous works, especially a closing monologue that is basically this “West Wing” scene:

 

In spite of the script’s misgivings, Timeline turns out an excellent production. John Culbert’s alley set design makes transitions easy and provides an elevated plane that is used effectively to display balances in social status and power. Giving Sarnoff’s side of the stage stairs and Farnsworth’s side a ladder is also a clever way of revealing character: Sarnoff can walk, Farnsworth must always climb. Lindsey Pate’s costumes have a modest beauty, historically accurate yet still exciting, and a parade of schoolgirls in pastel dresses is a particular highlight.

Powers plays Sarnoff with a cool demeanor that intimidates in the boardroom, but melts away to reveal a fiery core when his ideals are questioned. Sarnoff is the major outlet for Sorkin’s criticism, and his hopes for the entertainment industry are a stark contrast to the current media landscape, particularly in the fields of advertisement restriction and tasteful content. The major dramatic tension of the play is in Sarnoff’s mission to discover television first, and Power succeeds in capturing the intensity of a man that has few limits when obtaining what he desires, both financially and ethically. Fagin has a Midwestern charm that serves as a great foil to Sarnoff’s pretension, and both actors do fantastic work with the tricky dialogue. Philo’s relationship with wife Pem (Bridgette Pechman) is where a large portion of the production’s heart arises, and Pechman plays her with a concerned anxiety that allows for comic moments while still bringing a sense of foreboding.

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Timeline explores new possibilities and builds consistently excellent productions while protecting the past that gives them their name. Recycled as it may be, the final monologue has even more power when spoken by Artistic Director PJ Powers: “We were meant to be explorers. Explorers, builders, and protectors.” After a year of unprecedented success, where will Timeline go next?

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Extra Credit:

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Production publicity photos by Ryan Robinson.


Cast

Production Team

 

  • Tom McElroy **
    William Crocker, Ensemble
  • Bill McGough **
    Justin Tolman, Walter Gifford, Ensemble
  • Larry Baldacci
    George Everson, Ensemble
  • Kurt Brocker
    Wachtel, Ensemble
  • Paul Dunckel
    Douglas Fairbanks, Jim Harbord, Ensemble
  • Rob Fagin
    Philo T. Farnsworth
  • Sean Patrick Fawcett
    Eddie Simms, Vladimir Zworykin, Ensemble
  • Jeremy Glickstein
    Harlan Honn, Ensemble
  • Zach Gray
    Stan Willis, Ensemble
  • Maris Hudson
    Betty, Ensemble
  • Zach Kenney
    Cliff Gardner, Ensemble
  • Bridgette Pechman
    Pem Farnsworth, Ensemble
  • PJ Powers *
    David Sarnoff
  • Eliza Stoughton
    Agnes Farnsworth
  • Justine C. Turner
    Lizette Sarnoff, Mary Pickford, Ensemble
  • Jamie Vann
    Leslie Gorrell, Ensemble
  •  

  • John Culbert, U.S.A.
    Scenic Designer
  • Lindsey Pate +
    Costume Designer
  • Keith Parham, U.S.A. +
    Lighting Designer
  • Kevin O’Donnell
    Sound Designer
  • Mike Tutaj
    Projections Designer
  • Emily Guthrie
    Properties Designer
  • Julia Eberhardt +
    Assistant Properties Designer
  • Maren Robinson +
    Dramaturg
  • Bridget Dehl
    Assistant Director
  • Eva Breneman +
    Dialect Coach
  • James Ogden +
    Production Manager/Technical Director
  • Ana Espinosa +
    Stage Manager
  • Cheney Tardio +
    Assistant Stage Manager/Assistant Producer
  • Joshua Altman
    Production Assistant
  • Kristin Grace
    Assistant Costume Designer
  • Casey Diers
    Assistant Lighting Designer
  • Coco Ree Lemery
    Scenic Painting
  • Mieka van der Ploeg
    Wardrobe Supervisor
  • Mac Vaughey
    Master Electrician
  • Susan Muirhead
    Lobby Display Video Designer
  • ** Member Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers
    * TimeLine Company Member
    + TimeLine Associate Artist

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