Certain to provoke thought and to rekindle all manner of internal questioning about faith and one's beliefs in what we've been taught about the world, Jerome Bixby's The Man From Earth (adapted by Richard Schenkman) is presented in a beautifully directed and conceived production by ACT 1, onstage at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater through April 14.
Director Elizabeth Hayes' staging of the play-which is based upon a work that proved to be Bixby's final story-is confident and creative, her expert handling of her ensemble heartfelt and thoughtful. In fact, it's Hayes' complete understanding of the play which elevates it far beyond what appears on the page. Her artful approach to the material allows it to transcend the obvious manipulation and sentimentality that pervades the script, adapted by Schenkman from Bixby's film script (his final one, he supposedly finished the script on his deathbed, after starting it in 1960) which he filmed on a shoestring budget in 2007.
Certainly, the play's subject matter will make you think, but Bixby and Schenkman's treatment remains simplistic, even with all the scientific, sociological and historic information it imparts (which add up to one didactic script, let me tell you), clubbing you over the head at moments to drive home its rather obvious points. Thus, the play's denouement seems somehow predictable.
The difficulty in explaining what The Man From Earth is about can be traced to the fact that there's no way to give an accurate synopsis without giving away too many spoilers. And while that ensures that the 90 minutes you spend in the thrall of Hayes and her capable cast and crew flies by rather quickly, it also makes The Man From Earth a hard-sell to theater audiences.
Basically, here's the premise: John Oldman (played convincingly by David Bayer), a well-respected and revered professor at an unnamed university, has turned in his resignation and has decided to leave town abruptly and rather suddenly. A group of friends and colleagues surprise him on moving day with an impromptu send-off, replete with little smokeys, brownies and green seedless grapes (the aroma of the crockpot full of little smokeys fills the theater with the scent of so many cocktail parties, you cannot help but be transported to a scotch-infused gathering from your own past).
As Oldman's well-wishers hope to send him on his way in a convivial spirit, they remain stymied in their thinking by the suddenness of his departure, questioning his motives and wondering what has precipitated his decision. In answer to their queries, Oldman offers a startling and fantastic revelation: He is a Cro-Magnon (or Magdalenian) caveman who has somehow managed to survive-hell, he's thrived and has a whole host of academic degrees to show for it-for almost 14,000 years.
His admission of this news is met with a wide range of emotion and mostly disbelief and so, for the intervening 75 minutes or so of the play, he weaves an intriguing tale of his life that convinces some of his veracity, while others chafe at his cheekiness in trying to hoodwink them into believing him. And that's all I'm going to tell you; suffice it to say, the story is fascinating and provocative, even if unoriginal.
It is, therefore, Hayes' approach to the play that ensures its success as theater and that the eight actors work together so seamlessly. As a result, the party at Oldman's house has the feel of reality, a group of friends gathered together to celebrate a life-changing decision, while mourning the change at the same time. You can't help but believe the relationships portrayed onstage, which make the script all the more palatable and accessible.
That interplay among the actors and Hayes' elegant direction also helps to cover up the manipulative nature of Bixby's story and obfuscate the sometimes precious moments that unfold before you. And despite the best efforts of Hayes and her actors, the characters lack dimension as they are written, each one being an archetype to provide the structure and conflict that the story needs. Luckily, you can look past that and allow yourself to become engaged thanks to those flesh and blood people taking on the challenge of bringing The Man From Earth to the stage.
As the protagonist, Bayer provides the central focus for the audience, weaving his tale with ease. He's given laudable support by Bob Fish, Diana Holland, Patrick Goedicke and Layne Sasser as other academics who listen to his story with various levels of disbelief and, ultimately, grudging acceptance that his tale might be true, so convincing are Oldman's arguments. Fish's understated performance is ideally nuanced yet very matter-of-fact, while Holland's performance is just over-the-top enough to provide some much-needed social conflict to the already static environs and her self-assurance lends further credibility to the proceedings. Goedicke is self-righteously angry, shouting most of his lines in hopes of drawing a sharper image of his archaeology professor, though he's hampered by the script which only sketchily gives his character any heft. Sasser, heretofore known as the funniest woman on a Nashville stage, is given the opportunity to play against type, thus underscoring her deeply Christian character with a sense of irony, which shows off her often untapped range as an actress (note to local directors: this woman needs a meaty, dramatic role on which to feast).