Dallas — A dramatic spotlight on an inspiring main character surrounded by glowing orbs held up by the rest of the cast while eerie pump organ music plays. This opening moment of Dreaming Electric, written and directed by Kevin Grammer, is as quintessential Ochre House as the richly detailed set by founder Matthew Posey. It could be called performance art if there weren’t already a better name for it: theater.
This time the subject is Nikola Tesla, the genius inventor who has enjoyed a revival of reputation verging on fanaticism. Justin Locklear takes the mantle as well as the cake for a double-take likeness to the man for whom a list of things are named, not the least of which are the coil, a magnetic field unit of measurement and the titan electric automaker. His accomplishments aside, Tesla’s story of genius underdog in the fight over the future of electricity with none other than super-inventor Thomas Edison is what makes him a favorite of casuals everywhere. Of course, the man was more complicated but we crave heroes with clear outlines. And, playwright Kevin Grammer delivers.
Locklear creates an intensely likeable Tesla with Basil Fawlty comic contortions. The convenient occasion for characters’ arrival is a party/unveiling at his laboratory. Trey Pendergrass plays his sangfroid servant, Anital Szigety, as well as original compositions on the pump organ. They make a good pair, one flummoxed and one not. Added to this are the Johnsons, played by Carla Parker and Donny Covington. One provides a possible love interest and the other impossible poetic declamations. Chris Sykes bursts in as a drunk who turns out to be Tesla’s business manager, Charles Batchelor. The guests’ randomness increases with each arrival including Westinghouse (Brad McEntire), Edison (Ben Bryant), JP Morgan (Chad Spear). It’s like an after dinner murder mystery.
Only nobody dies.
There are a myriad of intricacies both business and personal. Parker’s Katherine Johnson clearly yearns for a connection with Tesla that he is unable to give. Cassie Bann excels as drawing room flirt to McEntire’s likeable Westinghouse. Spear’s JP Morgan shows a father’s skeptical concern for both her and his investments. Bryant’s Edison almost achieves our sympathy as the unwanted nosy party-crasher, but he’s the leading contender for a bad guy in this semi-historical whodunit.
There are moments like the opening that eclipse ordinary human comings and goings. At one point, a giant elephant puppet (designed by Locklear) gets electrocuted. Samantha Rodriguez’s costumes are period specific, except for one lovely flight of fancy at the climax. The majority of the evening is otherwise bizarrely predictable. The tension between the familiar murder mystery style and elevated theatrical moments may be indicative of an almost “butterfly effect” thesis on the part of playwright. In other words, the elevated moments may be Tesla’s reality and the ordinary moments may be his dreams. In either case, his dreaming is what sets him apart from the rest of us, but being set apart comes at a cost.
Locklear carries the evening handily. His Tesla keeps a captivating focus on something beyond the ordinary, a buoying passion for a greater idea that floats him over the awkward encounters and uninvited guests. This isn’t a historical narrative as much as a parable of the price of genius.
It can be inspirational or cautionary, depending on which world you inhabit.