Review: Griffin Theatre Company’s Solaris Makes (Human) Contact

Few 20th century works of art have inspired as many adaptations as Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 science fiction classic Solaris: three films, four operas, five plays and an eponymous Hungarian rock band, among others.

The most recent stage version, by David Greig, was first produced in Melbourne in 2019 to great acclaim. It now makes its North American debut at the Griffin Theatre Company, directed by Scott Weinstein, with a story that has captured more than a few imaginations—what will happen when and if humanity makes first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence?

Solaris investigates that question through the tale of an isolated space station orbiting a distant ocean planet, and the handful of scientists stationed there who have begun to observe unexplained phenomena in the form of “visitors” from their own past. Along the way, the production moves past scientific questions to examine deeper issues of consciousness and communication. The result is a thoughtful exploration of human identity and the possibility (or not) of truly knowing someone else.

Isa Arciniegas and John Drea. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

John Drea’s portrayal of Ray, a guest on the space station wrestling with his own identity, is one of the highlights of the evening. Drea’s sheer naturalism and seemingly effortless depiction of a confused young man struggling to understand what is happening is both instantly relatable and, ultimately, heartbreaking. His onstage choices (some as small as wiggling his toes) reveal an instinctive talent for fully inhabiting a role instead of merely portraying a character.

It’s also a real pleasure to watch T.J. Thomas in his role as station computer scientist Dr. Snow. Thomas brings considerable humor that leavens what is often a cerebral story, at one point earning a laugh simply by dispensing box wine to his castmates. His adroit performance ranges from curiosity to wonder to fear, sometimes merely through a raised eyebrow or a second glance.

Griffin veteran Larry Baldacci likewise deserves praise for his series of monologues (all via video), giving voice to station commander Dr. Gibarian’s steadily deteriorating physical and mental health. Initially elated by his discoveries, Baldacci’s portrayal gradually morphs into something quite different as he grasps at least part of the consequences of the mission.

Nicole Laurenzi is effective as the often-prickly station biologist Dr. Sartorius, whose reluctance to share the excitement of the mission hides a personal secret and a broken spirit.

TJ Thomas and John Drea. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

One final shout-out must go to Joe Schermoly’s ingenious set design. Together with first-rate sound and video, Schermoly transforms the small Raven Theatre stage into an ever-changing space station that quells any doubts about the effectiveness of performing science fiction without a big budget.

And now, a quibble. This is a long show—two and half hours. And, like the novel it is based on, can sometimes be weighed down by talk. The show would benefit from a faster pace with dialog and more physicality in a few of the performances.

Solaris runs through Saturday, March 27, at the Raven Theatre’s Schwartz Stage (6157 N. Clark). Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at www.griffintheatre.com. Running time is two and a half hours, with one intermission.

Guest reviewer Doug Mose is happy to be attending live Chicago theater again and watching Lake Michigan carefully for any coded messages.

 

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.

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