Two Molecules in Space: Heisenberg Arrives at A.C.T.

By Taylor Steinbeck

Heisenberg director Hal Brooks has received many questions about the title of his play beginning performances next week at The Geary Theater. “People ask me, ‘Oh, is it about that zeppelin disaster? Is it about Breaking Bad? No, it’s not,” says Brooks with a laugh. “Others ask, ‘Is it about Heisenberg, the scientist?’ To that I say, ‘It’s not about Heisenberg. It’s about a relationship—it’s looking at his ideas through a relationship.’”

The cast and creative team of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg at the first rehearsal. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
At the first rehearsal for Heisenberg, Brooks, an alumnus of A.C.T.’s Advanced Training Program, addressed a room full of faces both familiar and new, and admitted, “I am not a physicist.” With this disclaimer, he briefly explained the science behind Heisenberg. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle asserts that you cannot measure both the velocity and location of a particle—you can only determine one or the other. An offshoot of this idea is the observer effect, which is what playwright Simon Stephens is interested in parsing out over the course of Heisenberg. The observer effect states that the act of measuring something affects its outcome. Through the characters of Alex and Georgie, the play applies this concept to people, rather than particles. “What’s going to happen as these two living, breathing organisms affect each other?” Brooks asked. “Where are they going to end up, and can we measure that? I don’t think we can, but we can at least follow along as the mystery unfolds.”

Actors James Carpenter and Sarah Grace Wilson at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Brooks and set designer Alexander V. Nichols designed the set to reflect the science. “We want for the set to make it seem like we’re witnessing an experiment of sorts, of two molecules in space, attracted and repulsed, pulling together and pulling apart, and putting them in six different locations,” Brooks said. The two actors who will be interacting in this unpredictable space are the New York–based, award–winning, Sarah Grace Wilson, and Bay Area favorite James Carpenter. After years of performing as Ebenezer Scrooge in A.C.T.'s annual production of A Christmas Carol, audiences will have the chance to see him slip into a very different role as reserved Irish butcher Alex Priest. “James has been a gift of a collaborator for so many years,” A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff said. “I was so glad when we sent him the play and he said, ‘I love it and I’m terrified.’ Those are two good things!”

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and director Hal Brooks at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
The fact that Heisenberg is a two-person play is one of the reasons Brooks was drawn to it from the get-go. “I read this play and immediately wanted to direct it,” Brooks said. “It’s mysterious. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. And you think, well, there better be a third person coming because I don’t know how these two are going to make it, but that’s not the case. It just keeps persisting. And I find that magical.”

Heisenberg begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater March 14 and runs through April 8. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about A.C.T.’s production of Heisenberg? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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