Dallas — Here’s a somewhat obscure little historical cul-de-sac: someone stole Albert Einstein’s brain. In 1955, after Einstein died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, one Thomas Stolz Harvey, removed and preserved Einstein’s brain in the hopes that it could be studied to learn more about Einstein’s unique mind. This was done wholly without the permission of Einstein’s family, although they gave permission after the fact with some stipulations regarding publication of the results, and as long as those results were not sensationalized (unlikely, under the circumstances). Harvey spent much of the rest of his life moving around the country, often with Einstein’s brain sloshing around in the trunk of his car, hoping that two and a half pounds of brain tissue might help unravel the mysteries of human intellect.
This bizarre little story is at the heart of British playwright Nick Payne’s appropriately cerebral Incognito, a play that moves circuitously through three separate timelines with the brain at its heart, if you will. Under the direction of Artistic Director Alex Organ, Second Thought Theatre kicks off its 15th season with a fantastic production of the piece, boasting a cast of four that manages to play a multitude—twenty, in total—of distinct, fully realized characters.
A reporter excitedly tells Evelyn that the professor’s executor has passed, and there’s a chance they might be able to get a hold of the brain. Margaret wants Henry to play the piano for the doctor. Martha and Patricia shun the hipster bar and go elsewhere for their first date. Thomas and Eloise discuss Albert Einstein’s death. Confused? This is your brain on Incognito, which drops you in the middle of three separate storylines, with an occasional jog into one or two others, without a roadmap. As the play proceeds, patterns emerge, and connections between the characters come into focus, but it’s a deliberately challenging structure for an audience to follow. It’s on the cast to keep the characters and storylines crisp and distinct, and Second Thought’s actors are more than up to the challenge.
Rather than retell the plot—which would not only spoil several surprises, but would be too long and involved, flattening out the structure of the piece and losing the flavor of it entirely, here's a selective breakdown of the major roles (each actor plays between four and six characters, some larger than others).
Shannon McGrann plays Evelyn, who may have a deeper connection to Einstein than she realized; Martha, a clinical psychologist and newly out lesbian, whose research into cognitive impairment and memory has a surprising personal connection; and Eloise, pathologist Thomas Harvey’s wife. Drew Wall plays Michael Wolf, a reporter searching for a scoop on Harvey’s theft of Einstein’s brain; Henry, a man suffering from short-term memory loss; Einstein’s son, Hans Albert. Natalie Hebert plays Margaret, Henry’s wife, who struggles with her husband’s memory loss, and Patricia, Martha’s younger lover who finds it difficult to reckon with Martha’s past. And Thomas Ward plays Harvey the pathologist, whose interest in Einstein’s brain becomes an obsession; “Anthony,” a patient of Martha’s with memory impairment whose true identity may never be known; and Drs. Milner and Williams, who both treat Henry over his long life.
It’s difficult to choose a standout performance, as there’s not a weak link to be found. McGrann and Wall are both absolute chameleons onstage, shifting seamlessly between characters and accents. Martha and Evelyn’s circumstances parallel in some respects regarding their family histories, and McGrann does a lovely job contrasting their responses to their new understanding of who they are and where they come from, respectively. Wall’s reporter, Michael, has just the right tinge of underhandedness to him as he pursues his story, and his accent work with other characters (Swiss and various flavors of British and American) is excellent. But it’s his portrayal of Henry that truly showcases his talent. We follow Henry from his days as a young man, newly married to Margaret but unable to form new memories, through the years in an institution, gradually aging and becoming more and more disoriented and bitter. Wall’s physicality shifts as Henry ages—he stoops, and shuffles, and slowly develops a tremor in his hand—and the transition is subtle and beautifully realized; a final scene between Henry and McGrann’s Martha is suffused with tenderness.
Natalie Hebert, a new face on the DFW theater scene, gives several fine performances. Her Patricia is utterly charming in her scenes with McGrann’s Martha, but the emotional turmoil she goes through later feels real and earned; her Margaret is heartbreakingly contained as she struggles with the new reality of her husband’s disability. Ward’s portrayal of Henry’s longtime doctor gains depth over time, as both men age and Milner becomes increasingly invested in Henry’s care. And his Tom Harvey displays a satisfying combination of self-righteousness and self-delusion as he burns all his bridges and devotes his life to justifying those decisions to do so.
Incognito’s talented cast is supported by an equally talented production crew. The set design by Amelia Branksy is minimal, but incredibly evocative—I won’t say more lest I dull its impact—and the lighting design (by Aaron Johansen) works effectively in tandem with it to help delineate the transition from timeline to timeline. I applaud the decision by costume designer Melissa Panzarello to boldly choose specificity in costuming rather than a sort of timeless anonymity; each cast member’s costume, while distinct, somehow manages not to feel jarring in any of the time periods, which is quite a feat. And kudos to Second Thought for making use of dialect coach Anne Schilling, whose work with the cast clearly paid off.
Titles are important—taken literally, “incognito,” coming from the Latin, means “not known.” Playwright Nick Payne admitted in an interview in 2014 that the title Incognito was, let’s say, borrowed, from a book by neuroscientist David Eagleman titled Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Eagleman focuses on how the brain strives to know itself but may never truly plumb its own depths: “…what we've discovered by peering under the hood ranks among the most significant intellectual developments of our species: the recognition that the innumerable facets of our behavior, thoughts, and experience are inseparably yoked to a vast, wet, chemical-electrical network called the nervous system. The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us.” Payne’s play explores not only the physical structures of the brain, but the vast, unknowable depths within that structure; it’s an ambitious, confusing, and beautiful ride, and Second Thought Theatre’s production more than does it justice.