Jessie Fisher (Marianne) and ensemble member Jon Michael Hill (Roland)

When the curtain rose on the press opening of playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations,” now running at the storied Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, I indulged a cynical eye roll. Another meet cute rom com, even if this one features two pulchritudinous Brits (fair or not, dreck is a lot more tolerable when delivered with an English accent)? No. Not at all. The work, written by Nick Payne and directed by Jonathan Berry, is more than another take on “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,” although there’s plenty of interstellar discussion.

The compact 80-minute production features just two characters, beekeeper Roland (Jon Michael Hill) and theoretical physicist Marianne (Jessie Fisher). They interact on a sparse but novel set that allows the audience to sink into the repetitively rich dialogue. That’s not an oxymoron. Several lines are repeated upwards of 10 times, yet each delivery feels fresh because it is, in fact, something new.

Confused yet? Press materials describe the plot as follows: “Roland and Marianne meet at a party. In that single moment, an unfathomable multitude of possibilities unfold. Their chance meeting might blossom into a meaningful relationship or a brief affair; it might lead to nothing at all.” “Constellations” in fact covers nearly every possible relationship pitfall (infidelity, lies, illness, unrequited devotion) or blessing (proposals, reunions, meaningful conversations with I-Thou transcendence) in rapid fire. And it works. Beautifully.

This owes no small debt to the gifts of the two leads. Hill and Fisher are tremendous. As immersed as I was in the stories of Roland and Marianne, the third wall was broken more than once to marvel at Fisher in particular. The actress’ ability to use her body and cadence to make the same phrase mean completely different things with a microsecond’s transition — stunning.

The intensity of both performances almost leaves one grateful (for the actors’ sake) that the production is brief. They sustain eye contact, move around each other in charged circles and are alternately desperate, overjoyed or bereft. There are few (if any) props. There’s nowhere to hide or take a restorative breath.

Early last week, just two days before the show officially opened, I lost a very close friend, very suddenly. In the midst of an acute grief process, ideas of infinite possibility, of alternate universes where our beloved sick and infirm enjoy happily ever after, are both torturous and becoming. But on whichever end of the misery/jubilation continuum audience members lie, “Constellations” will yield thought and discussion about the almost limitless range of human behavior and emotion.

In times of celebration, healthy egos bask in what feels like inevitable reward, while the more humble marvel at providence and good fortune. In tragedy, some interpret setback as their destiny while others obsess over what might have been done to alter the outcome. “Constellations” has a message for all of these demographics. Every experience is simultaneously pain and pleasure. As the production’s press release suggests, Steppenwolf’s early summer offering explores “a myriad of possible lifetimes… the extraordinary richness of being alive in the universe.”

The production is a cerebral champion. See it.

“Constellations” runs through July 3 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.


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