CONSTELLATIONS at Steppenwolf Tells A Universal, Intimate Love Story

CONSTELLATIONS at Steppenwolf Tells A Universal, Intimate Love Story

In the opening moments of Nick Payne’s new play CONSTELLATIONS—now in its Chicago premiere in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf—the playwright presents audiences with an archetypal “Boy Meets Girl” story. But then that moment occurs again and again, each time playing out in a different universe. And thus, in a swift 80 minute run-time, Payne crafts the love story of Roland, a bee keeper (Jon Michael Hill), and Marianne, a theoretical physicist (Jessie Fisher). Each time Roland and Marianne “meet” in the first scene, the outcome varies—sometimes closely mirroring the first “universe” that audiences see, other times radically diverging from that first encounter. Over the span of the play, Payne plots seven sequences in Roland and Marianne’s relationship—from the awkward first moments to those of deep connection, heartbreak, and unimaginable suffering.

While the overarching concept of the multiverse and cosmology may send audiences’ heads spinning, Payne’s writing also has a uniquely human quality. As CONSTELLATIONS grapples with the concept of the wider universe—and indeed, the very construct of time—it is ultimately an intimate portrait of Roland and Marianne’s relationship. The play hinges on the instance in life when we decide to open ourselves up to one another and show our vulnerability—and Payne’s dialogue beautifully captures this with utmost humanity.

Under Jonathan Berry’s insightful direction, Fisher and Hill add another level of vulnerability and depth to Payne’s writing. Both actors give nuanced, emotional performances and adjust to the rapidly-shifting nature of the script. Fisher, in particular, bestows Marianne with great depth of feeling in the more intense moments of CONSTELLATIONS as her character contemplates life-altering news. She conveys Marianne’s agony both vocally and with a heightened physicality that indicates the character’s all-consuming emotional state. Hill’s Roland is full of charm and earnestness. Together, these two actors have a solid rapport, even if the romantic chemistry seems to falter in moments. This may be because the play itself moves quickly from intimate scenes to those with more distance and awkwardness. And though CONSTELLATIONS goes to some surprisingly dark and intense places, Fisher and Hill also find laughs. This is most evident in a sequence of scenes in which Marianne and Roland run into one another at a ballroom dance class, nailing that strange dynamic between awkwardness and familiarity among two people who were once close.

Like the play itself, the design elements of CONSTELLATIONS also suggest a universe with varying possibilities. Joe Schermoly’s scenic design focuses on a central grey mass, suggesting a planet-like space with no furniture (and very select props) employed. This area is flanked by two webs, which keenly mimic the structure of both honeycomb and constellations—a reminder of Roland and Marianne’s passions and also the play’s conceit. Heather Gilbert’s lighting design adds an ethereal element, with lightning-like flashes between sequences.

While the love story at the center of CONSTELLATIONS feels in many ways universal, this play also paints a touching, specific portrait of its characters. Fisher and Hill prove more than game to rise to the challenge of this two-hander, and the result is lovely and undeniably moving.

CONSTELLATIONS plays the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted Street, through July 3. Tickets are $20-$89 and can be purchased online at, by phone at 312.335.1650 or at the box office.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

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