By Daniel Skora
They are known as the Lovers of Valdaro. Their skeletons were found during an archeological dig near Verona, Italy in 2007 and are judged to be around 6,000 years old. The two figures lay in what has become an eternal embrace, their skulls face-to-face mere inches apart and their limbs intertwined. Though it’s romantic to think that they became frozen in time at a moment of shared intimacy, it’s also totally conceivable that they cling to each other not out of love but in an instant of intense fear. What we see may be the final act of humanity between two people consoling each other in the face of impending doom. It’s the image of those remains that forms the framework for Matt Letscher’s play “Gaps in the Fossil Record”, the current presentation of the Purple Rose Theatre.
The play begins in the classroom of Richard (Mark Colson), a professor of paleontology who will never have the word “dynamic” attached to his end-of-semester student evaluations. But he knows his academic stuff well, and his opening lecture on the similarity of design in all animals, including the human one, is not only entertaining (He gives an interesting slide presentation about appendages in all creatures basically having the same one bone/two bone/ pods and rods structure), but will make you aware of the fact that you are more closely related to your pet dog or cat than you may think.
Richard has just returned from a three month archeological dig. Jane (Aja Brandmeier), a student who has also been on the dig, is bringing him home to meet her mother Susan (Michelle Mountain). Though widowed, Susan continues to be a practical joker and a truth speaker. Along with Richard, the two are responsible for most of the comedy that brightens the first act. When Susan finds out that her twenty year old daughter and the professor have been doing more than excavating old bones, she becomes angry. What could her daughter possibly see in a man thrice her age? But Susan needn’t worry about her daughter’s relationship with the professor going any further. As it turns out, they’re already married.
From there, “Gap” proceeds through numerous twists and turns. Richard loses his job for fraternizing with a student. A new family dynamic occurs in Susan’s home. And as the first act comes to a close, tragedy strikes.
Grief colors the second act. A sudden shower at a cemetery forebodes a more destructive rain to come. Time jumps ahead some fifteen years. The “family” as it existed in the first act is no more. Thunder, or perhaps something more ominous, roars through the theatre. But if Letscher’s story has now become a bit too contrived, it’s because he has to find a way to get to that final provocative scene where ancient history comes full circle with the future. Whether that scene is nothing more than a gratuitous reference to the circle of life, or perhaps hints at new gaps in the fossil record being formed, it makes for not only a gloriously dramatic ending but a striking exclamation point to an otherwise fine piece of theatre.
Colson, Brandmeier, and Mountain are perfectly cast in this four character play, Brandmeier playing different parts in each of the two acts. The set, designed by Vince Mountain, has a few pieces of furniture with the floor and backdrop painted in nonintrusive white and gray. Slides from the Verona dig are projected onto the back wall. Lighting and projection design are by Noele Stollmack, sound is by Tom Whalen, and costumes are by Christianne Myers.
“Gaps in the Fossil Record” is a world premier. The show is directed by Guy Sanville and runs through May 28th. Ticket reservations may be made by calling the Purple Rose box office at 1.734.433.7673 or going online at www.purplerosetheatre.org. The theatre is located at 137 Park Street in Chelsea.