You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in physics to enjoy Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg” now onstage at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington.
True, the two-actor play takes its appellation from Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who in 1927 discovered the uncertainty principle, essentially creating the field of quantum mechanics. Baldly stated, the principle holds that it is impossible to measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously with absolute precision.
But “Heisenberg” is as much about physics as “ER” was about medicine.
Or is it?
Stephens applies the idea of natural unpredictably to the improbable coupling of two disparate people. Georgie, played by Karen Peakes, is a 42-year-old New Jerseyite living in London. Alex, played by Bud Martin, is a 75-year-old self-employed butcher. She is wild and impetuous, a self-proclaimed serial liar with serious credibility issues. He is a solitary soul toughened by hurt and disappointment. Her impulsive decision to plant a kiss on the back of his neck as he sits on a bench in a crowded train station commences a life-changing journey for both of them.
It’s tempting to dismiss “Heisenberg” as just another May-December romantic fable using science to give it some intellectual heft. Alex wouldn’t be the first old codger to have his head turned by a thrilling — and much younger — woman. But what’s in it for Georgie? Is she looking for a friend? A lover? A father figure? Or a cash cow? Turns out all the science in the world can’t predict who will be drawn to whom and why, and we circle back to the uncertainty principle.
That peck on the neck leads this oddest of odd couples into a genuinely human relationship that is at once affectionate and wary, quirky and conventional, funny and sad. Georgie’s frenzied behavior both alienates and thrills Alex. His guarded heart gradually emerges as she chips away at his emotional armor.
The play is most effective in its quieter moments, vindicating Alex’s belief that music takes place not in the notes but “in the space between the notes.” His sorrow is palpable; his loneliness underscored by Georgie finding a lone candy bar in his kitchen. The perils of love between the generations is brought home by the realization that time is flying by, expressed by Alex’s observation that “the older I get, the more I realize how very brief everything is.”
The play demands that we grow to like Georgie as much as Alex does and Peakes’ impeccable performance makes that easy. Peakes gives us Georgie in all her trappings: wild and frenzied; sad and withdrawn. Martin is equally brilliant, countering with a withdrawn and stoic character gradually returning to life under her tutelage.
Science is definitely at work here, but not the quantum mechanics of Heisenberg. Rather it’s the chemistry between cast, creative, and audience. Peakes, Martin, and director Matt Pfeiffer are all Allentown College alums who have worked together at one time or another. Audience members are never far from the action on the thrust stage, creating a special intimacy with the actors.
Will Georgie and Alex endure? The uncertainty principle tells us nothing in the universe has a definite trajectory. But this fascinating couple sure had an audience rooting for the ultimate happy ending.
“Heisenberg” is onstage through February 25 at the Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. For tickets, call 302-594-1100 or visit www.delawaretheatre.org.