Michigan-born playwright Matt Letscher has a substantial history with The Purple Rose Theatre Company and Jeff Daniels, both as an actor and as a playwright. So it just makes sense that the Michigan-premiere of his “Gaps in the Fossil Record” is now appearing at PRTC as part of its 25th Anniversary season.
The play is billed as a love story, and it is certainly a story about love, if not in the usual sense. This play is more thoughtful; more profound.
“Gaps in the Fossil Record” opens as Richard (Mark Colson), a paleontologist with 30-years’ experience dusting bones, delivers a college lecture. He’s used to field work and out of practice when it comes to public speaking. He hits his stride when he abandons his note cards and shares a slide of the 5,000-year-old skeletal remains of a young couple locked in an eternal, face-to-face embrace. Richard explains that paleontologists start with the end of the story and try to build backward, adding flesh to the bone fragments and piecing together bits of truth. There are huge gaps between the known facts, and it’s the job of the paleontologist to try to fill them in.
Richard invites the class – the audience – to think about what the story of these “Romeo and Juliet” skeletons might have been. Over the course of the play, each of the characters we meet ventures an opinion, and the play itself offers us many examples of the circumstances that might bring two people together. Love. Desperation. Even terror.
Richard himself is jarred out of his solitary existence when he discovers the love of Jane—a 20-year-old student who stirs the blood in his almost-60-year-old heart. Jane (Aja Brandmeier) is exuberant about paleontology and passionate about Richard. Her mother Susan (Michelle Mountain) is convinced that the announcement of their wedding and Jane’s pregnancy is just an elaborate prank. It’s not.
From this point, the story is revealed carefully but deliberately, much as a scientist patiently brushes away centuries of earth from a bit of jaw bone to reveal the remains of a giant hornless rhino. Director Guy Sanville understands how to work with this material. The audience is never sure which brushstroke will reveal the bigger picture, and it is this tension that keeps us leaning forward into Letscher’s precisely crafted dialog.
In Act Two, the play seems to shift direction in a dramatic way, but we eventually realize that this is the story coming full circle. In the first scene of the play, Richard shows us how the arms and hands of human beings are assembled in essentially the same bone pattern as found in bird wings and the legs of horses, pandas and virtually all mammals. Even a prehistoric fish that ventured out from the sea into the primeval mire has arm-like fins. By the final scene, we understand the significance of his lecture. As humans, it is what we do with our hands, with those special opposable thumbs, that distinguishes us from our terrestrial cohabitants. We can push people away. We can join hands. We can seek to close the gap.
Mark Colson delivers a remarkable performance as a calcified intellectual who suddenly finds himself immersed in a pulsing, untidy, violent flesh-and-blood world. His performance in Act One is eerily echoed in Act Two, although to explain why would give away too much. Trust that it is worth seeing.
Michelle Mountain is always a joy to watch, and as Susan, the widowed mother of Jane and unlikely mother-in-law to Richard, she offers effortless dynamic range. She is outrageous, hilarious, tough and tragically vulnerable all within a few minutes on the stage.
Aja Brandmeier does double duty – creating two unique young women in this play. Jane, child bride to Richard, seems uncontainable in her enthusiasm for the amazing world around her. As Meredith, she is a quiet teenager who is confident but clearly scarred by a world that has spun out of control.
This is a play about the “gaps” in our human narrative – the parts of the story we don’t know but try to piece together from the clues at hand. We can never unearth the whole truth, but this much is certain—we are connected. We are all part of the story.
The stark set design is by Vince Mountain, with lighting and projection by Noelle Stollmack. Properties are by Luciana Piazza, costumes are by Christianne Myers, and sound design is by Tom Whalen. Thomas Macias is the stage manager.
“Gaps in the Fossil Record,” which was awarded the prestigious Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, runs through Saturday, May 28, 2016. Evening performances take place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 3 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. All performances are held at The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Ticket prices range from $19 to $43 with special discounts for students, seniors, teachers, members of the military, and groups. For more information or to make reservations call The Purple Rose Theatre Company box office at (734) 433-7673 or visit their website.