FORT WORTH — Because we are all fallen, falling is a natural state of being.
That is the frame of reference for Michael Hollinger’s brilliantly structured and hilariously written Hope & Gravity, which opened Saturday at Circle Theatre.
The nine characters in this new play (it debuted in Pittsburgh earlier this year), which is receiving its regional premiere in this production directed by TCU theater department chair Harry Parker, are all falling in one way or another. Some fall from grace, some fall for one another and one unlucky pair falls quite literally in a mysteriously malfunctioning elevator.
So the gravity of life weighs as heavily on these characters as the gravity of physics. It is only the battered buoyancy of faint hope that keeps them from slamming into the earth and shattering into atoms.
The characters caught in this vice of natural forces — the crushing weight of the world vs. the basic human desire to rise — deal with their dilemmas in varying ways. Jill (Sophie Lee Morris) and Steve (Jeff Wittekiend) find solace in the soothing flow and comforting meter of poetry, guided by their professor, Douglas (Robert Michael James). Peter (Justin Flowers), a dentist with a wandering eye, lies his way through life. Barb, aka “Black Tooth Barb” (Lexie Showalter) thinks that Steve can keep her afloat, if he will just follow instructions.
The mentally unstable Hal (Brad Stephens) sees visions, while his wife, Tanya (Jennifer Engler), sees a dim prospect of parenthood as a way to keep gravity at bay. Peter’s clandestine lover, Nan (Susan Riley) fails her marriage to the earnest and caring elevator repair man, Marty (Ben Phillips). Since he carries the gift of forgiveness in his toolbelt, he is the only character who ascends while the others decline.
The structure of this artfully non-linear script (its scenes play in a jumbled order), places these seemingly unrelated people in various situations, usually in pairs. Although they come from different directions and head for different goals, their lives intersect in surprising ways, as they all try to fight the fall — except for Marty, who seems to take things amazingly (or perhaps divinely?) in stride.
This may sound like pretty weighty material. It is, if you want it to be. But the dialogue is so rich and funny that you can enjoy this sharply acted and directed show on any level you like. Hollinger, who also penned the previous Circle productions Incorruptible and Ghost-Writer, provides much more than a spoonful of sugar to help this medicine go down.
There are no weak performances. Flowers and Phillips are especially good but, on the whole, you will seldom see a more balanced gathering of players than this one.
The only misstep is the casting of Engler. This outstanding actress who, like James, is a professor in the TCU theater department, is not credible as a woman hoping to become pregnant.
The play unfolds on a bare stage with a few sticks of furniture occasionally trotted out to change the scene. Ordinarily, that would be a major drawback. The writing and performances are so compelling that you are not likely to be bothered that it is being presented in a vacuum.