Friday, March 23, 2018

Unlikely relationship blossoms in "Heisenberg" at ACT

James Carpenter as Alex and Sarah Grace Wilson as Georgie have dinner in "Heisenberg." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Things aren’t always as they seem in Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

In this two-person drama, a 42-year-old single woman, Georgie Burns (Sarah Grace Wilson), ingratiates herself with a 75-year-old single man, Alex Priest (Bay Area treasure James Carpenter), after kissing him on the back on the neck in a London train station.

She says she mistook him for her husband, who had died 18 months ago. 

However, when she unexpectedly visits him in his butcher shop a few days later, she admits that was a lie. In fact, much of what she tells him is a lie.

Nevertheless, he’s intrigued enough to ask her out on a date –- at her request. Before long, they’re in bed together.

It seems that her original intent was to get him to give her money to go to New Jersey to search for her estranged 19-year-old son, who probably isn’t a fabrication.

Despite that ulterior motive, the two of them grow to care about one another. In some ways, their relationship is an attraction of opposites. In addition to the obvious difference in their ages, she’s a nonstop talker, while he’s more taciturn, a solitary man given to thinking before he speaks.

Still, they appear to be good for each other. She helps him to become more spontaneous and open to possibilities, while he becomes a steadying influence for her.

The play’s title, “Heisenberg,” comes from a theory postulated by German physicist Werner Heisenberg in 1927. Although his theory relates to physics, it also relates to human behavior.

According to an article in the “Words on Plays” that accompanies this production, playwright Stephens said, “If you’re carefully watching where somebody is going or what someone is doing, the likelihood is –- you never properly see them.”

This uncertainty theory relates to Georgie and Alex because each is surprised by what the other does next despite watching closely.

As directed by Hal Brooks, Carpenter is superb as Alex undergoes his gradual transformation. Wilson doesn’t do quite as well, perhaps because Georgie is hard to like, especially at first, but she, too, changes gradually.

Alexander V. Nichols, who also designed the lighting, has created a minimalist set where some set pieces rise from below the stage or where two wooden chairs can be connected to form a bench.

Costumes are by Meg Neville with sound by Brendan Aanes.

Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, “Heisenberg” will continue through April 8 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit