Review: Strong cast makes for a real time discussion in Infinity

I don’t know about you, but every time I try to understand that old darling of physics, string theory, my brain seizes up like a car engine with a fatal oil leak.

That’s not the case for Elliot Green. A driven physicist who’s attempting nothing less than to unify all physics, Elliot is never happier than when he’s tooling his way through a world of string, loop and sundry other theories as he tries to pin down the nature of time. Problem is, he’s not seeing the forest for the theoretical trees.

An endearing if aggravating and self-centred man, Elliot (played with awkward charm by Paul Braunstein) is one third of the family triangle underpinning Infinity, the occasionally problematic but ultimately rewarding play by Ottawa native Hannah Moscovitch about time, relationships and what really matters in our brief lives.

Carmen (Amy Rutherford) is the second point in the triangle. A musician, she reluctantly puts her composing career on hold so she can raise her and Elliot’s child, Sarah Jean. Rutherford maximizes the potential of the forgiving but frustrated Carmen, although you do wish Moscovitch had given her more to work with.

© Amy Rutherford

Carmen’s inner life is amplified by Andréa Tyniec, a fleet-fingered violinist (more strings, you notice) who appears occasionally in the background playing music that, composed by Njo Kong Kie, could have been created by Carmen herself. The music does, albeit abstractly, help flesh out Carmen’s character and situation.

Her marriage to Elliot is a rocky one. While far from needy, Carmen hungers for more connection with her husband. But Elliot, brilliant and insensitive if sometimes surprisingly tender, can’t stop working. “I have the sense it’s just out of reach,” he says. “If I just keep going, I’ll get there.” Of course, as in Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Elliot can never reach the “there” that he’s seeking because, unknowable, it just keeps retreating. His search is like the horizontal lines of Teresa Przybylski’s evocative set: it has neither beginning nor end, and yes, you’re right – he’s seeking the wrong thing.

Sarah Jean is the third point in Moscovitch’s family triangle. Both a mathematician and a violinist, she’s damaged by her parents’ disconnection. When we first meet her as an adult telling us, in often funny and plain-spoken fashion, about her history of unsatisfying sexual relationships, it’s not immediately evident that she’s Elliot and Carmen’s child. She appears to be unconnected with anyone or anything, and her early appearances on stage end in a desultory fashion, much like her relationships with men.

Vivien Endicott-Douglas plays Sarah Jean, shifting fluidly from adult to child – that’s when we learn for certain whose progeny she is — and giving, at one point, what must be the best rendering yet seen on a NAC stage of an eight-year-old having a world-class temper tantrum.

Under no-nonsense director Ross Manson and choreographer Kate Alton, Moscovitch’s intense, immediate family drama plays out against the imponderable question of what exactly time is and our common struggle to deal with the past, present and future.

For Elliot, that struggle changes as the play develops. What if, he asks himself at a critical point in his and his family’s life, time isn’t the mere construct that a theoretical physicist imagines it to be but is instead “real”? What does that do to how we perceive ourselves, the importance we attach to those closest to us, and, perhaps most crucially, how we understand infinity?

Moscovitch, attempting to drive home her point about the reality of time, rounds out her story with a twist that makes too obvious the playwright’s hand at work. With a lesser cast and director than this production enjoys, that obviousness might make the play stumble. Fortunately, in this case we buy in and, to quote Elliot, it all feels very “real.”

Infinity is a Volcano (Toronto) Production. It was reviewed Thursday. In the NAC Studio until March 11. Tickets: nac-cna.ca

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.