Review: Purple Rose gives first class world debut for Gaps in the Fossil Record
A paleontologist walks on the stage. Behind him is a projection of a famous and enigmatic fossil find. The bones of two ancient bodies are seemingly entwined, facing each other.
Lovers, religious sacrifices, bodies covered in a long ago volcanic eruption? No one knows, everyone has a theory or two.
The paleontologist is an absent-minded professor, a bit of a joker, a man who admits being more comfortable on a dig conversing with ancient bones than in front of a classroom. But he has always been drawn to those dusty bones and their secrets and what they might say about love, community, and life.
This is the beginning of Matt Letscher’s richly-conceived comic drama Gaps in the Fossil Record, making its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea.
Gaps is an interesting conversation across generations, a family drama, an emotional volcano at times, and even a bit of eco-science fiction. That it all works so well is a tribute to director Guy Sanville and his creative team, three superb actors, and the raw intelligence, wit, and insight of Letscher’s play.
Richard, the awkward paleontologist, is a very late bloomer. He’s given his life over to those lovely bones and shunned people. Now he’s a middle-aged college teacher who finds himself loved by a 20-year-old student. They’ve come to give the good news to the young woman’s mother, with whom she has a complicated, if loving, relationship.
This provides the bones for an interesting exchange of secrets, fears, hopes, and explanations across several years. To reveal too much of the plot would spoil some of the play’s appeal. Suffice it to say that the three characters go through some big changes that open both wounds and revelations.
Mark Colson is a gaunt, shambling figure as Richard, at first a nice guy, though seemingly ill fit for Jane, his assistant on a recent dig. As the play progresses, Colson must deal with the deepest emotions. He goes from sly wit, to anxiety-ridden unemployed middle-ager in crisis, to an old man with cognitive problems. Colson finds the core in each of these transformations, and in the beginning and at the end is our guide. His strongest emotional moments are also some of his more hilarious moments, a testimony to just how complex Letscher’s play is to perform.
Michelle Mountain is riveting as Susan, Jane’s mother and a widow of a complicated and tragic marriage. She also navigates the shifting tones beautifully, from horrified mother “losing” her daughter to an old geezer, to sympathetic mother-in-law struggling with her own desires, to troubled grandmother. Mountain’s Susan is blunt, foul-mouthed, tender, warm, and finally a survivor through life’s ups and downs. Every emotion is real.
Aja Brandmeier takes on two roles; the love-struck Jane, finding love in a world shy father figure, and Meredith, Richard and Jane’s teenage daughter. As Jane she has a kidding, ribald, and good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. Brandmeier captures that tension excellently and is also convincing in portraying her affection for her smart but socially awkward older lover. But Brandmeier’s strongest moments come as Meredith, a purple-haired punk with a kindly heart. She tends to an aging father who doesn’t know her and here the character is a shy, tentative girl, more like her father. She’s also someone bewildered by a world in chaos. Brandmeier holds her body as if trying to hug herself and shield herself from a cold world.
Sanville brings this together with a rewarding simplicity. The acting is sharply in sync. The comedy never falters and the emotional highs never become too overwrought. The production values are high.
Vince Mountain’s gray set is basically a bare stage, a backdrop of white wall doors for projections of bones, with furniture pieces moved in and out efficiently. Lighting and projection design by Noelle Stollmack and sound design by Tom Whalen are integral to the production’s success and take center stage for a while at the end.
Gaps in the Fossil Record should find a place in many regional theaters and may well get its shot at Broadway, but Letscher should count himself lucky and well-served by this superb Purple Rose world premiere production.
The play received recognition with the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The Foundation provides financial support to theatres with established reputations for producing new plays. The grants have provided funds for extended rehearsal time to develop plays and schedule productions. Fifteen of these plays have gone on to Broadway including the 2014 Tony Award winner All The Way and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Next to Normal.
Playwright Matt Letscher is a Grosse Pointe native, a 1992 graduate of the University of Michigan, and an actor on stage, film, and television.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Gaps in the Fossil Record continues at The Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, at 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 pm matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 pm matinees Sundays through May 28. For ticket information, call the box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit http://www.purplerosetheatre.org.