Two Degrees: timely and well-played

The Guthrie’s Dowling Theatre, through Oct 21

Norah Long and Joel Liestman in TWO DEGREES. Photo by Dan Norman.

Watching Prime Productions’ staging of Two Degrees (the Guthrie‘s Dowling Stage) about a woman scientist asked to testify before a senate select committee on the effects of climate change, one might think that this play was birthed over the past weekend given the recent events in our nation’s capital. But no: the play first premiered in Denver in 2017 after a few years of readings and workshops. The main character in Two Degrees is Emma Phelps, a paleoclimatologist, (expertly played by Norah Long) who leaves her husband every summer to study ice cores in Greenland. Her old friend and schoolmate—now a senator—asks Emma to join in testifying before the hearings in Washington.

The play shifts between Emma’s personal life and her upcoming public appearance in front of the press and the powerful. Emma is understandably anxious. Playwright Tira Palmquist handles this intertwined plot with ease. Scientific information can overload a play with too many facts and too little action so Palmquist chooses to front load the play with personal stories and interpersonal complications that keep the plot rolling. The play opens under dim lights with the sounds of a hot sexual encounter in a Washington hotel room. The complications and the scientific data follow.

Scenes shift from present to past, from D.C. to Greenland and back. It all works beautifully under the capable direction of Shelli Place. Her cast moves the story along with a good sense of timing as the mood shifts from tenderness, to anxiousness to outright grief. The supporting cast is comprised of talented local actors. Toussaint Morrison as Clay has all the handsome good looks and smooth moves of a Washington lobbyist without seeming smarmy; Jennifer Whitlock has the commanding presence and vocal range to be a believable Senator; and Joel Liestman deftly delivers three roles: Emma’s husband, the senator’s chief of staff, and a Greenland carpenter. (I swore he became four inches taller in his part as Malik, clothed in down-filled garb in Greenland, than in his two other roles.)

Emma’s appearance before the senate committee is the climax of the play and actor Long does a fine job in the impassioned scene. If the show has a drawback it is in the few closing scenes that follow. Playwright Palmquist chooses a too-good-to-be-true ending with all the strings tied up in a very, very neat bow. More restraint could have made for a more believable denouement.

This is the second season for Prime Productions company whose mission is to present plays with casts that feature women who are in their fifties or older. Taken as a whole, the show is a great first appearance at the Guthrie’s Dowling stage for Prime Productions.

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