It’s hard to imagine a small theatre company more dedicated and intense than Outcry Theatre, a group that evinces the fact that you needn’t have deep pockets or elaborate production values to create exquisite, fanciful, poetic, dangerous and compulsively searching shows. Beginning in 2012 with Carlos Murillo’s dark play or stories for boys, a trippy, volcanic painful exploration of the shadowy side of malehood, Outcry has continued to intrigue, absorb, enchant and torment audiences with The Four of Us, Circus Tracks, and now Lucas Hnath’s Isaac’s Eye, a strange and unsettling rumination on the life of Sir Isaac Newton as he struggled to fulfill his destiny, and actualize the promise of his genius, while investigating phenomena such as the nature of light, time, space and calculus.
Hnath depicts Newton’s (Price Wayne Christian) emotional turmoil by examining his relationship to his girlfriend, Catherine his contemporary and rival, a more accomplished scientist named Robert Hooke, and Sam (Jason Johnson-Spinos) a poor soul dying of the Bubonic Plague and test subject in Hooke and Newton’s experimentation. Catherine and Isaac have been friends since childhood. She is the daughter of an apothecary and deeply devoted to Newton, obviously more invested in their attachment than he is. Catherine (Sarah Elizabeth Smith) shares a tenuous connection to Hooke (Duc Huu Nguyen) a friend of her father’s who belongs to The British Royal Academy of Science. She provides Isaac with entrée to Hooke, who keeps brushing him aside until he realizes that Newton, despite his raw and intuitive approach, may be on to something. Trouble is, Hooke doesn’t really welcome the competition. The conflict of interest isn’t italicized, but it’s also impossible to ignore.
Like other shows in Outcry’s short history, Isaac’s Eye, uses a simple, narrative approach, which results in greater complexity. That is to say, the more they explain, the more hopelessly complicated the situation becomes. Needless to say, this is complication in the best possible sense. It’s not that Isaac doesn’t love Catherine, but she’ll always run a distant second to his work. Is this a failing on Newton’s part, or the price of truly soaring in a way that suggests Icarus or revolutionary thinkers that changed the course of history? While Hooke has no burning desire to see Newton succeed, his methodology feels more grounded and his values, less extreme. Still, after we process all this information, Isaac’s Eye begs the question, does lunacy (such as probing your tear duct with a needle) come closer to genius than composure? Is a sense of security the path to illumination?
Hnath raises so many compelling questions, it’s hard to know where to begin. He humanizes Newton and his situation, yet clarifies his ordeal. He admits at the outset that much of Isaac’s Eye is fiction crafted for the sake of illustration. Like asking yourself what Van Gogh would have done if a loved one were desperate for food. A central conflict in which Newton blackmails Hooke, initiates more questions about the nature living one’s life responsibly and effectively, especially when burdened with miraculous vision and intellect. I couldn’t say if Hnath fully evaluates the cruelty of a world that tends to stigmatize and torture fringe dwellers, for the unpardonable sin of refusing (or not understanding how) to assimilate. In a way Isaac’s Eye makes Newton seem almost impish, extraterrestial, so maybe it’s not so difficult to grasp his alienation or estrangement as Hnath might seem to imply. All this being said, Outcry, again, with the astonishing energy and grace their cast, crew, directors and writer bring to the stage, have accomplished sorcery with a few exotic ingredients, and the spark of supernatural will. Don’t miss this sublime, chilling, phenomenal drama.
Outcry Theatre presents Isaac’s Eye, playing January 23rd through a Sunday matinee on February 2nd, 2014. The Studio Theatre (Black Box) at Addison Theatre Centre, 16560 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-836-7206. www.outcrytheatre.com