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.

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Timeline Theatre Announces 2009-2010 Season

Timeline-Logo

TIMELINE THEATRE COMPANY
ANNOUNCES 2009-10 SEASON

ALL MY SONS
by
Arthur Miller
directed by
Kimberly Senior
August 31 – October 4, 2009 (previews 8/27 – 8/30)
Praised along with Death of a Salesman and The Crucible as Miller’s masterpieces, this 1947 Tony Award winner for Best Play returns to the Chicago stage for the first time since an acclaimed Broadway revival last season. A middle-class American family struggles to deal with the loss of one son during World War II and the desire of another son to now marry his brother’s fiancé. As family members and those closest to them try to move forward, an explosive secret from the father’s past threatens to unravel everyone’s hopes for happiness. This powerful drama is a haunting exploration of business ethics and one’s moral responsibility to the larger community.

WHEN SHE DANCED
by Martin Sherman
directed by Nick Bowling

Travel to the Paris of 1923 for this gorgeous and incredibly funny portrait of legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. The so-called mother of modern dance is desperate to keep herself financially solvent and to realize her dream for retirement: a school in Italy to teach young dancers her art. Through a multi-lingual script of great heart and appeal, Sherman mixes the high comedy of a colorful cast of characters with a poignant view of the importance of the arts to move and inspire us. Through the eyes of those in Duncan’s life we glimpse her greatness and how she touched so many lives when she danced.

‘MASTER HAROLD’ … AND THE BOYS
by Athol Fugard
directed by Jonathan Wilson

Recipient of a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 1982, ’Master Harold’ … and the Boys is considered Athol Fugard’s masterpiece, valued for both its universal themes of humanity and its skilled theater craft. Set in South Africa during the 1950s era of apartheid, it depicts how institutionalized racism can become absorbed by those who live under it. A white 17-year-old spends time with two African workers he has known all his life, and through their conversations on one rainy day we see what unites and divides them. The play’s beautiful and haunting dialogue and message of hope also inspire the recognition that there is much work to be done to bring people of different races together.

THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION
Chicago premiere
by Aaron Sorkin
directed by Nick Bowling

From the creator of A Few Good Men and The West Wing comes this fascinating new play direct from Broadway. It’s the story of two ambitious visionaries — Philo T. Farnsworth, an Idaho farmboy, and David Sarnoff, head of RCA — battling each other for the rights to one of the greatest inventions of all time: the television. Through corporate espionage, family tragedy, financial disaster and the thrill of discovery, these two larger-than-life men compete for fame and credit and become part of a decision that would change America, and eventually the world.

A fourth play and the season’s schedule are still to be announced.

Says TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers:

“We have put together a season filled with bold ideas and tremendous heart and hope and guts.  Through a steadfast commitment to our mission, TimeLine aspires to be a place for people to come together, to feel a sense of community and to engage in a dialogue about our place in history. The work on our stage allows audiences to lose themselves in a story from the past in order to perhaps better understand where we are today and where we might go tomorrow. During our 2009-10 season, we look forward to exploring some defining moments of the 20th Century together — moments of art and beauty, of friendship and understanding, and of innovation and exploration.”

Creative team biographies after the fold.

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