Review: ‘The Secret of Life’ a world premiere by Indra’s Net Theater (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Sam Tillis as Francis Circk and Alan Coyne as James Watson in Indra's Net theater's world premiere production of "The Secret of Life" by Bruce Coughran. Photo Credit: Indra's Net Theater.
Sam Tillis as Francis Circk and Alan Coyne as James Watson in Indra’s Net Theater’s world premiere production of “The Secret of Life” by Bruce Coughran. Photo Credit: Indra’s Net Theater.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Indra’s Net Theater debuted in 2013, with Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” and followed up in 2014 with the Bay area premiere of “QED” by Peter Parnell and the world premiere of Jennifer Blackmer’s “Delicate Particle Logic,” later that year. Now they offer another world premiere, “The Secret of Life,” by artistic director Bruce Coughran. Like the shows that preceded, “The Secret of Life,” is quite wonderful.

Make no mistake, Indra’s Net Theater, with its specialization in high quality work with a focus on science stories, is now clearly established as one of the Bay Area’s leading professional companies. If they continue at this level (and why wouldn’t they?), it won’t be long before work like this receives national and international recognition. Trust me: you want to be there and ensure your future boasting rights that “you knew when.”

“The Secret of Life” tells the familiar story (certainly familiar to science wonks) of the discovery of the structure of DNA, the famous “Double Helix.” By focusing on the characters as much as on the science, Bruce Coughran has created a play that is emotionally fulfilling as well as intellectually stimulating. The audience is painlessly educated in both the science and the politics of the discovery, while being taken on a whirlwind emotional ride. We know where the story is headed, but when the DNA model finally clicks into place and the scientists gaze on it in wonder, the emotional payoff is huge. Many will be moved to tears.

The characters of the scientists have been beautifully drawn: We have the brilliant, aggressive, and witty Francis Crick (Sam Tillis) working at one lab with the younger, shyer James Watson (Alan Coyne); and the prickly and difficult Rosalind Franklin (Laura Lowry) in another lab, where she is at odds with gentleman scientist Maurice Wilkins (Matt Weimer). Robert Shyrock and Luke Brady are also very good, respectively, as the ambitious Peter Pauling (son of Linus) who is anxious to make an independent name for himself, and the wide eyed graduate student, Raymond Gosling.

The dynamics of the scientists’ competition, the thrill of the chase, and their engagement with their work and each other captures our unflagging interest for the full length of this short play, performed in a bit more than an hour with no intermission.

All of the performances are excellent, but Sam Tillis’s extraordinary performance as Francis Crick deserves special mention. He brings life to scientific dialogue to an amazing degree — even when detailing the most complex technicalities, he grounds every word in genuine emotion. Watching him work is sheer joy. This is yet another in a series of outstanding performances from Tillis in numerous Bay area productions.

“The Secret of Life” plays at the Berkeley City Club through January 17th. For further information click here.

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“The Secret of Life” by Bruce Coughran, produced by Indra’s Net Theater. Director: Bruce Coughlin. Composer/Sound Designer: Chris Houston. Lighting Designer: Hamilton Guillén. Costume Designer: Karen Sue Hickey. Dialect Coach: Rebecca Castelli.

Cast:

Rosalind Franklin: Laura Lowry. Francis Crick: Sam Tillis. James Watson: Alan Coyne. Maurice Wilkins: Matt Weimer. Raymond Gosling: Luke Brady. Peter Pauling: Robert Shyrock.

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