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The year is 1693, and the already-famous scientist and mathematician Isaac Newton (Alex Leydenfrost) is intent as ever on pursuing his work. What his colleague John Locke (Jim Porterfield) doesn't know is that instead of science or math, the great man is trying his hand at the illegal practice of alchemy. In Gravity, the David MacGregor play in its world premiere at the Purple Rose, Newton is scarcely an object at rest, fitfully traversing his Cambridge University suite and laboratory. In a plot that takes liberties with written history, he meets the headstrong widow Brilliana Cavendish (Michelle Mountain), then surprises himself by confiding in her about his true pursuits as their relationship grows. While the story figuratively brews, something is literally cooking in the laboratory oven, changing properties at a glacial pace.

What works in Gravity's favor is its lead actors, under the direction of Guy Sanville. As the overworked Newton, Leydenfrost is solitary, pensive, ruthlessly single-minded, and captivating as he is plagued with moments of weakness. Mountain is too good to be true as Brilliana, more intelligent and forward than centuries-ago women had permission to be. Porterfield's Locke is a smaller role, but he aptly plays the friend who spends too much time supporting and not enough time intervening. My favorite, however, was Newton's professional nemesis, Robert Hooke (Will David Young), who is absolutely the most fun a depraved weasel can be. The smug dressings down Young delivered made me wish he was available for parties. An additional plus is the actors' rich voice work — they have an easy cadence that rises to meet the classically inspired sentence structure. It's a shame, therefore, that the script is so far from Shakespeare.

The four primary characters are developed enough to form an interesting story on their own. Unfortunately, they're mired in a swamp of narrative devices; MacGregor uses every conceivable trope to get him from point A to point B. There's the chorus, whose form and relation to the main action seems to change depending on what MacGregor needs for the scene. An unprecedented flashback conjures three characters, with a few lines each, that form a piercing counterargument to the standby Show, Don't Tell. The thematic refrain is the attainment of purity, drawing parallels through Newton's alchemy, his chastity, science, faith, and the developments between Newton and Brilliana. Ultimately, however, it was not clear to me how this theme propelled the final moments and what it was all supposed to mean.

The production is fairly true to the period, with Daniel C. Walker's warm hardwood take on Cambridge and the antiquated laboratory. Lighting by Dana White successfully used long fade-outs, lingering like Newton's brain that wouldn't allow him to sleep. Christianne Myers's costumes and Tom Whalen's sound design were more hit and miss, blending lavish period-appropriate choices with ones that didn't fit the year or the scene; again, the logic guiding the choices was unclear.

Challenging theater doesn't have to hand-deliver answers to its audience, but Gravity seems to exist at the opposite extreme. The bold choices in this production may work for some, but to me they were at odds rather than working in symbiosis. As compelling as the performances were, the story I wanted to follow drowned in the distracting, chaotic elements that overpowered it.


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