Encore Michigan

World premiere “Gaps In The Fossil Record” has big ambitions at Purple Rose

Review April 25, 2016 Jenn McKee

CHELSEA, Mich.–Matt Letscher’s Gaps in the Fossil Record, now having its world premiere at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, starts with an awkward paleontology professor, Richard (Mark Colson), giving an introductory class lecture. (We, the audience members, are stand-ins for his students.)

Richard points out that the basic skeletal structure of a human arm is echoed, again and again, in countless animal species, thus demonstrating a common point of origin and prompting questions like: what first motivated our genetic ancestors to leave their watery home and venture onto dry land? And regarding two human, 5,000 year old skeletons, found near Verona, Italy in 2007, who appear locked in an embrace – who were they, and what was their story?

GAPS-IN-THE-FOSSIL-RECORD--PURPLE-ROSESuch questions represent, of course, unfillable gaps in the world’s fossil record; the queries for which there’s no hope for resolution, no matter how many ancient bones we unearth.

And Richard’s strange, surprising late-life journey – beginning as an aging man who romances a 20-year-old student (Jane, played by Aja Brandmeier) while on a dig – would seem to provide the backstory on what might, one day, be its own “gap.” In this one, Jane returns home from her three month dig to see her widowed, practical joke-loving mother, Susan (Michelle Mountain) and introduces her to Richard. Though Susan is floored by Richard’s advanced age, and initially thinks she’s been pranked herself, she soon comes to understand that the May-December romance is not only a reality, but has also resulted in a pregnancy. Plus, after Richard loses his job and moves in, things go even further off the rails by way of a tragedy; an illness; and seemingly apocalyptic natural disasters.

Achieving a sense of the latter largely depends on Tom Whalen’s thoughtful and affecting sound design in the final act; indeed, the sound nearly becomes a kind of fourth character, and has to be all the more nuanced and meticulous for that. Noele Stollmack’s lighting and projection also play a key role in one of the play’s tensest moments, using quick flashes and the skeletal illustrations in quick succession; also, leading up to this moment, Stollmack skillfully sets the atmospheric mood of each starkly different scene.

Set designer Vincent Mountain keeps things spare and versatile on the Rose’s thrust stage, with a textured gray floor and a plain, white backdrop – perfect for the show’s projections – that contains four doors that stand flush with the wall. For Jane’s homecoming scene, two doors stand open, with just a couch and a small coffee table on stage (the show’s props were designed by Luciana Piazza); and later, when a conversation is set outdoors, all four doors stand open to provide a sense of openness. (Stollmack’s initially bright lighting obviously helps achieve the effect, too.)

Gaps’ surprising twists and turns, and particularly its jolting final act, make it feel simultaneously realistic and fantastical, but costume designer Christianne Myers keeps the characters visibly rooted in the familiar world. Richard first appears in a sand-colored button-down shirt and pants – an outfit we can imagine as typical for a paleontologist who’s used to living in the dirt –and shifts to frumpy sweats and a t-shirt when he’s out of work. Susan is more colorful, wearing a purple blouse in the opening scene, while Jane’s clothing, fittingly, combines Richard’s and Susan’s palette together.

Director Guy Sanville capably guides Gaps’ tight, three-person ensemble through the characters’ harrowing journey. Watching Mountain shift from laughing disbelief to horror regarding Jane and Richard’s romance is both hysterical and wrenching. Brandmeier demonstrates that she’s all in near the beginning, when she passionately mounts Richard on the family couch; and later in the play, when she re-appears on stage as the couple’s daughter, Brandmeier uses physical cues (and a cool, blue, punky haircut) to flesh out a young woman in starkly different circumstances. Colson has the farthest to travel, though, and he does so admirably, making Richard’s sometimes irrational actions make a kind of emotional sense.

How do the play’s various story elements hang together? I’m still sorting that out for myself, frankly. (While leaving the theater I heard a patron say, “So it was part global warming statement, I guess?”) In a sense, you have the makings for two or three wholly different–but equally compelling–plays within Gaps, but when you put all of them together, they’re like puzzle pieces that only fit when you put some muscle into the effort. The play ambitiously aims to cover whole continents of emotional terrain over the course of many years in these characters’ lives. But this broad scope also makes it feel like you’re not quite sure where and when to fully invest your sympathy and focus. An awful lot happens, and some of the narrative jumps are tough to make.

That said, part of Letscher’s intention is to take the long view of life on this planet, and make a connection between our distant past and our possible near-future. I left the theater admiring Letscher’s authorial courage – his willingness to take risks; and the play’s ultimate moment of anthropological echo resonates in a lovely way. But the layers we must chisel through to arrive there may be, in their own right, intriguing enough that we instead long to linger within, and closely study, a single one.

Gaps in he Fossil Record will run through May 28.

Click here for show days, times and details.