When I first heard that Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations was scheduled for performance at Church Hill Theatre, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To be honest, it sounded a bit dry and academic. Boy, was I wrong! This is a thoroughly absorbing play, built around a compelling human story and some of the most powerful music you’ll hear on a local stage. The music is absolutely magnificent.
The play originally appeared at Washington’s Arena Stage in September 2007. It made its Broadway debut in 2009, with Jane Fonda in the lead role — her first Broadway appearance in 46 years. Zack Grenier took the role of Beethoven, a part he played in a 2008 west coast production. In 2007, it won the Egerton New American Play Award, and in 2008 the American Theater Critics award as best new play. The Broadway production was nominated for several Tony awards, including best play, best performance by leading and featured actors (Fonda and Grenier). It won the award for best scenic design, by Derek McLane.
The plot is the story of musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, a specialist in the music of Beethoven. She has received special access to the library in Bonn, Germany, where musical manuscripts and other documents of Beethoven’s life are stored, with the goal of researching the composer’s “Diabelli Variations.” Based on a simple waltz by a music publisher who asked all the leading composers of his day to write variations – a gimmick to create a quick best-seller – Beethoven’s 33 variations are a challenging work that Dr. Brandt finds intriguing. Why did this banal dance tune inspire such a powerful response from one of the greatest musicians who ever lived?
As we soon learn, Dr. Brandt is working under a severe handicap. A victim of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, she faces progressive physical deterioration that will eventually kill her. Despite her diagnosis–or perhaps because of it–Dr. Brandt is determined to go ahead with her plans and travel to Germany to continue her research. Her daughter, Clara, is appalled by this decision. She is worried about her mother’s illness. What if she gets worse? Who will take care of her mother in Germany? Clara is also angry and hurt that her mother would choose to spend what remaining time she has in Germany with Beethoven and not at home with Clara.
But Dr. Brandt is not the only character struggling against a cruel universe; at the same time as we follow her story, we see Beethoven’s efforts to complete the variations, complicated by his struggle against deafness – perhaps the most devastating affliction that can befall a musician. Their two stories play out in close parallel, with lines and themes echoing back and forth between them. And tying them together is the actual music of Beethoven’s 33 variations, performed by a pianist who occupies the center of the stage.
But to summarize the plot that baldly is to leave out much of the play. There is a great deal of humor, especially in the scenes with Beethoven, his assistant Schindler, and Diabelli, the music publisher and composer. There is a love story, as Dr. Brandt’s daughter and a male nurse find themselves drawn to one another. There is the puzzle that caught Brandt’s attention in the first place: why the great composer was attracted to such an unimpressive, mediocre melody by Diabelli? And there is the critical element of the acting – the Church Hill production features seven actors and a pianist working together to create a truly memorable experience. Kudos to director Michael Whitehill for orchestrating it all.
Kathy Jones, who is becoming one of the most versatile actors in the local theater community, takes the role of Dr. Brandt. She does a good job of conveying her character’s drive to understand the music and her determination not to let her disease slow her down. At the same time, she convincingly shows the effects of the disease – I was reminded of video footage of the physicist Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous modern victims of ALS. A virtuoso performance by Jones, done very naturally and convincingly.
Eddie Vance, who was most recently in CHT’s Jesus Christ Superstar, has a juicy role as Ludwig van Beethoven. One of the most brilliant geniuses in musical history – and well aware of the fact – the character is at the same time completely impractical. Dressed in slovenly clothes, chronically behind in his rent, unconcerned with currying favor from rich patrons, he depends on his friends to take care of the basic tasks of everyday life. Vance plays up the character’s comic side, which does a good bit to humanize the composer. Very nicely done.
Dr. Brandt’s daughter Clara, who struggles to understand her mother’s drive to continue working while she is ill, is played by Kendall Irene Davis. A 2016 graduate of Washington College, Davis has moved into the local theater scene both onstage and off, with important roles in several CHT plays and choreography credits on Jesus Christ Superstar. Here, she finds a nice balance between her character’s anxiety for her dying mother and her new love interest in the male nurse who is attending her mother.
Debra Ebersole, another CHT veteran, is cast as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, a German musicologist who is in charge of the Beethoven archives Brandt has come to study. At first stern and unsympathetic, she unbends during the course of the play to become the American’s main helper. A beautiful and nuanced performance by Ebersole, showing a nice range.
Will Robinson, a veteran of both CHT and Shore Shakespeare, plays Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s friend and assistant who helps the composer navigate the challenges of the day-to-day world. Robinson gives his character a delightfully pompous bearing and a supercilious mien, bringing both humor and social satire to the role. A solid job by one of the area’s most reliable character actors.
Ken Gresh plays Diabelli, who keeps trying to push Beethoven to finish his variations so the book can be published. Dressed in the peak of early 19th-century style, Gresh plays up the clear contrasts with the slovenly Beethoven, with a delicious Italian accent to cap off the characterization. Well done.
Robbie Spray plays Mike Clark, a nurse who treats Brandt and subsequently finds himself in a relationship with her daughter. Spray, whose most recent appearance was in A Flea in Her Ear at CHT, does a nice job of making the somewhat nerdish character sympathetic while still believable. Spray’s Mike is caught in the middle between his patient and his new love interest. And he has to make a decision about where his loyalty lies. Spray handles this conflict smoothly.
Last, but far from least, Stephanie King LaMotte is the pianist for the production. Her playing is inspired. LaMotte is an impressive pianist. While she has no dialogue, her performance is critical in setting the emotional landscape in which the rest of the play takes place. She plays the variations – by no means easy music to play – with authority and vivid expression.
The set is very effective and very simple–a change, one might even say a variation!–from the usual elaborate, gorgeously decorated sets that director Michael Whitehill is known for. Center stage is a grand piano. A single bench on the left side of the stage represents the modern-day scenes in New York. The right-hand side is 19th century Germany with a desk and chair to show alternately Beethoven’s study or Diabelli’s, the music publisher’s, office. Lighting and costumes are also good.
I can’t praise this production highly enough; the actors are in fine form, the play itself is at the same time refreshingly different and emotionally compelling, and at the heart of it is the unparalleled music of Beethoven. Do yourself a favor and go see it. And be sure to tell your friends about it.
33 Variations will be playing through Sept. 22, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members, and $10 for students. Call the box office at 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org for reservations or additional information.
All photos by Steve Atkinson