Who could imagine that a semi-documentary about a corporate battle over the rights to the cathode ray tube would hold an audience spellbound for two acts?
Jeffrey Schmidt could and does, directing Theatre Three's The Farnsworth Invention, running through March 17 on the company's main stage. Playwright Aaron Sorkin, best known as the Emmy award-winning writer of the television series The West Wing, the Oscar-nominated A Few Good Men (based on his 1989 play) and 2010's film sensation The Social Network, proves he can translate his dynamic characters and engaging story lines from celluloid to stage with equal success.
The story, occasionally narrated by its two male leads, portrays the development of television in the early 20th century as a high stakes competition. The big gun, an East Coast mega-corporation funded research team with Ivy League-educated scientists led by a relentless RCA executive, operates lavish research labs. The underdog, an Idaho farm-boy savant inventor and violinist, shepherds an unorthodox, blue-collar shoestring operation in a run-down storefront, funded modestly by California's William Crocker.
Peopled with an array of actual historical figures, the play feels like a documentary; but it concerns itself less with historical accuracy than with the thrill of the race and the personalities and quirks of its large cast of characters. And the gritty, mood-setting special effects that add Baz Luhrman-like allure to the enterprise.
Schmidt goes for broke as director/designer, drawing from his resourceful artistic depths to create impressive environmental effects that define tangible realities in Theatre Three's inherently "stagey" performance space in the round.
From a homegrown actual cathode ray assemblage on stage to smoothly incorporated scrim and grainy upstage projection, accompanied by excerpted readings from early RCA radio scripts, the clumsy attempts to launch the invention provide intriguing contrast to the human drama flights of fancy or conflict that inspire them. Schmidt's set design, along with the lighting/multi-media design by Amanda West and sound by Marco E. Salinas, bring the fast-changing world of Sorkin's script vividly to life. It's breathless fun to watch.
Schmidt assembled a cast to die for, comprised of some of the region's top actors, who bring consummate skill and energy to every role, from lead to two-line walk-on. The main characters strut and spar like prizefighters. Jakie Cabe plays David Sarnoff, a hard-nosed Russian Jewish immigrant, the RCA executive front man who intends to win at any cost. Cabe's flawless diction, fierce delivery, compelling presence and vibrant characterization could drive the show, alone.
As Philo Farnsworth, the inventor savant, lean, expressive Alex Organ brings a Jimmy Stewart-style warmth and swagger to the role that engenders gallons of natural empathy and balances Cabe's Sarnoff's calculated control of the action like a seasoned fencing master.
Rounding out the cast with memorable performances in fine-tuned ensemble style are: Danielle Pickard, Adrian Churchill, Jerry Crow, Christopher Curtis, Catherine DuBord, Ian Ferguson, Micah Figueroa, David Goodwin, Andrew Kasten, Clay Wheeler, Lydia Mackay, Joel McDonald, Aaron Roberts and Ian Patrick Stack.
Sorkin lets no character linger like stage scenery for long; his script demands crisp entrances, immediacy and fully realized characterization instantly, from everybody. No one disappoints, under Schmidt's clear director's vision. Costumes by Meredith Hinton (whose fine work has been seen at Theatre Arlington) support the characters and eras depicted flawlessly, sans distraction or glaring, cheesy anachronism. Hopefully Theatre Three will continue to employ this designer in the future.
Television is such a normal fixture in most Americans' homes, it's hard to imagine a time before it existed. Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention offers a rough and tumble, entertaining perspective on the birth of this global media entity.
◊ This review also appears on the author's blog, CriticalRant, which is a TheaterJones media partner.