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REVIEW: Flawless 'Summerland Project' takes viewers into brave new world

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:50 pm   ::  

CEDAR RAPIDS — A lot was on the line at Theatre Cedar Rapids on Friday night. (1/11/13) A large crowd had turned out to see a new play by a local author. That weightiest of phrases, “world premiere,” was being bandied about. The show was TCR’s 400th production.

It was a significant moment.

And each and every person involved in “The Summerland Project” — writer Rob Merritt, director Leslie Charipar, a creative technical crew and an impassioned cast of seven -- was ready for that moment. This was very nearly a flawless production of an impressive script.

Merritt’s play appears to draw from a variety of influences: the Pygmalion myth,  "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? " (source material for  "Blade Runner"),  "Frankenstein" and more. Nevertheless, “The Summerland Project” feels fresh and original. It posits a future in which the human brain can be uploaded into a synthetic body with its memories intact.

Would the resulting being be human? Even if it were, would it be moral to cheat death in this way? And what rights would be inalienable to these all but alien creations?

To pull off a high concept play like “The Summerland Project,” Merritt’s script must accomplish a lot: serve up the moral problems in a compelling way; deal with philosophical and scientific exposition in a manner that doesn’t slow the action down; subtly set up plot points that enable and drive the climactic scenes; provide the characters with complex, believable motivations and natural, flowing dialogue; and upset our expectations and problematize our biases.

“The Summerland Project” is successful in each and every one of these areas. Merritt’s program note points to the collaborative development of portions of the text over time, but it is clear that his guiding vision and skillful writing are at the heart of the play’s success. The script itself is a significant accomplishment.

The details

Derek Easton’s spare set, which is enhanced by two walls of video monitors, is perfect. The physical trappings of science fiction are kept to a minimum, which strenghtens the focus on the characters. The monitors could easily have become a distraction, but they are employed so deftly that they only serve to enhance the story, adding drama at key moments and elucidating the mind of the play’s central character.

But all of this — a sharp script, a striking set — would be for naught if the cast couldn’t deliver. Fortunately, with strong direction from Charipar and a clear commitment to the material, this cast was stellar. Each performer inhabited his or her role in such a way that we could see, hear and feel the struggles of the characters to bring huge dreams to fruition at any cost, to stand up for a moral code, to emerge victorious in the face of equally intractable opposition, to find love amid confusion and heartbreak. To a person, the cast — Christopher Cole, Jon Day, Scott Humeston, Matthew James, Marty Norton and Tierra Plowden — deserves kudos.

I’ve left one cast member out of that list because she has earned special commendation. Angela Billman is simply brilliant as Amelia Summerland. Billman’s portrayal of a new kind of person — a hybrid of artificial organism and uploaded personality — is thrilling. As her character relearned to be Amelia (and that formulation of what is happening is just one of a number of possible interpretations), she was by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. It’s a demanding role on which much depends, and Billman could not have been better.

“The Summerland Project” strongly engages both the heart and the mind. It reminded me of the classic science fiction tale which has appeared in many forms over the years, including as a stage play “Flowers for Algernon.” Like that seminal story, “The Summerland Project” is a devastatingly good piece of work.

I hope this is just the first of many stages from which Amelia Summerland will connect with and challenge audiences.

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