Feb. 25 2010 12:00 AM

Purple Rose hits new heights with glorious 'Gravity'



Through the mist, a woman walks through an arch, steps out from background shadows and onto the stage, and lifts her skirt, appearing to levitate. Is it intentional?

The play is “Gravity” an examination of the life of Isaac Newton, a troubled soul and one of history’s most brilliant mathematicians. Purple Rose theater artistic director Guy Sanville has taken David MacGregor's dense and intellectually almost impenetrable script and transformed it into one of the most intriguing pieces of live theater seen in decades.

Alex Leydenfrost plays Newton; Will David Young portrays Newton’s antagonist Robert Hooke. They dance and soar through the challenging and complex circumlocutions of 17th-century Cambridge-educated English at warp-speed, flooding the audience with a dizzying display of articulate intellectual arguments.

Leydenfrost presents Newton as exhaustingly obsessed with expanding the breadth and depth of his scientific observations, with no time for food or sleep, and no tolerance for those who do not wish to compete with him. Young, presenting Hooke as more of a casual intellectual, offers up a more flawed human scientist, devoting himself as much to the ladies as he does to science.

Making the heady philosophical material of this play absorbable to the minds of theatergoers, Sanville creates quick-time, flashback tricks, in which aspects of the story line from separate eras occupy the stage at the same time. As Newton describes his anguished and lonely childhood, his mother and her second husband appear on the stage, in the mist, interacting with him as he tells the story.

A two-tiered set designed by Daniel Walker places Newton’s laboratory with a giant kiln in the center of the stage. Newton comes most alive in these forefront scenes in which Leydenfrost gets to express Newton’s passionate conflicts trying to reconcile science with spirituality. Audience members get to watch the alchemy of changes that happen as Leydenfrost works through Newton’s thought processes out loud on center stage.

Michelle Mountain adds an entirely new dimension, as well as substantial depth, to the storyline, arriving in mid-play as Brilliana Cavendish, a woman of heart and mind who rescues Newton from the excesses of academic overkill and providing him with just enough love and support to sooth and comfort his troubled soul. Jim Porterfield (as the philosopher John Locke) and Rhiannon Ragland (as housekeeper Mrs. Grundy) round out a cast of expertly directed actors.

Gravity Presented by Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park St. in Chelsea. Through March 27 at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. 

Tickets: 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays $25; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays $38; 3 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays $33; 3 p.m. Wednesdays $25. (734) 433-7673