Ross Compton and Melanie McNulty in Constellations Credit: Tyler Core

In COVID times, gestures that would have been banal and forgettable a year ago now arrive embedded with loaded backstories—even those (especially those?) that play out on stage.

For the past year and a half, actor Melanie McNulty has been prepping to open Constellations. In September 2019, Theatre Above the Law artistic director Tony Lawry cast her as the astrophysicist heroine in Nick Payne‘s mind-stretching, multiverse-pondering exploration of love, the cosmos, and the infinite capacity of the human brain to both define and betray the very heart that feeds it. 

At first, the two-hander also starring Ross Compton was slated to open in March 2020. It was postponed. Then it was postponed again. And again. About a year after McNulty and Compton were cast, TATL decided to do it as a virtual production, which opens this week. 

The commitment made, the cast and two-person crew (Lawry and stage manager Stina Taylor) embarked on weeks of Zoom rehearsals and quarantine, punctuated by COVID tests for all four. 

Eventually, the group stepped off Zoom and met for tech week in TATL’s Rogers Park space. It was the first time the maximum-45-seat Jarvis Square Theater had been used for live theater in almost a year. With Taylor taking on chauffeur duties so the actors could avoid public transit, the group did two days of masked rehearsals. Then, they all did another COVID test. Then there was an extraordinary moment of wrenching ordinariness.

Compton and McNulty dropped their masks. McNulty recalled experiencing a heady sense of marvel. 

“There was a slight moment where I felt like I was naked. The air, suddenly on my face. But that went away, and it was just sheer joy. I’m watching someone smile and laugh and breathe, right in front of me.

“After so many hours of rehearsal where all I could see was my scene partner’s eyes, it was liberating.” 

It was also brief. 

“It felt pretty sweet during that part of tech, to have that freedom,” McNulty said. “We all have to do what we have to do to stay safe—I’m not complaining about having to wear a mask or anything else I have or need to do. But yeah. I was pretty melancholy after, knowing it’s going to be a long time before we have that kind of freedom again.” 

For Lawry, it was a defining moment in a production he’d been committed to for the better part of two years. Lawry said he’s always found Payne’s elliptical tale of an astrophysicist and the beekeeper who loves her an emotional roller coaster. Smart romantic comedies are his go-to genre, and this one had humans dealing with quantum physics and aphasia and string theory in addition to drunken sex, major trust issues, and witty wordplay. 

He did not, however, expect it to be quite the emotional roller coaster it became. 

“This was supposed to start our fourth season,” he said. “We were coming off our first Jeff Recommended season, our first Jeff nomination—we were riding that wave, thinking this would be a great thing to end on, keep the momentum going. 

“Nobody wanted to let it go. We kept postponing it and postponing it. We thought about doing it outside somewhere in the summer, but that didn’t feel safe. And the city wasn’t giving theaters space to do outdoor performances like the restaurants were getting for outdoor dining.

“So by late last fall, I was like, ‘We just need to do it, even if it’s just for us. We’ve all been prepping for this show for so long, and I’m afraid if we postpone it anymore, we might not all be able to do it together. So let’s get it out of our system so we can move on, but we have to figure out a way that we can do that without shortchanging the brilliant material in any way and we have to be safe.'” 

Lawry bought a green screen and came up with a production budget that was mostly about editing and filming. (Credit for video goes to Max Zuckert; George Pitsilos and William Schneider created the sound.) 

Lawry wanted to replicate, as much as he could, the feeling of an actual play you could see in person in the Jarvis space. There were times over the past year when Lawry wondered whether the Rogers Park space would survive, at least as Theatre Above the Law. 

“There were a couple months when it was iffy—our landlord has been OK. We got a couple of grants, not what we’d hoped for but some. It’s month by month. We just extended our lease for six months. We’re good through August. But I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t say my stimulus money goes into the theater’s bank account. 

“I have an ensemble that’s just as passionate as I am. So we’ve done some Zoom murder mystery fundraisers, and they’ve put everything behind them,” Lawry continued. “And our neighbors have been so supportive. I feel like we’re very much a part of our community. Like, even people who didn’t attend the online fundraisers bought tickets. The restaurant across the street (R Public House) did this pairing dinner thing, where if you bought a certain dinner, we got part of the proceeds. Life’s Sweet is doing a honey tart as a dessert, only on show nights. 

“We got 20 new subscribers during a pandemic for a season that’s totally up in the air which I think is pretty great for our little storefront. It’s a tight-knit neighborhood, and I really love being a part of it,” he said.

That season is not entirely up in the air. In March, Lawry hopes to drop a reboot of their 2017 world-premiere adaptation of Cyrano, only this time as a radio play complete with ad jingles. In May or June (or later), there’s a world premiere of War of the Worlds on deck, only this time, as Lawry explains, “The heroine is a 13-year-old girl and the aliens are gross men.”

Finally, TATL will close out with Compton’s Henchpeople, a three-person comedy about which Lawry will say nothing else except for “I really hope we can do it for a live audience by then. But we’ll see.” 

For now, Lawry and his cast and crew remain immersed in Constellations, and the often weirdly apropos existential dilemmas Payne’s characters insist you think long and hard about. Take, for example drunk-but-still-an-expert-physicist Marianne’s science-based statement that “We’re just particles governed by a series of very particular laws being knocked the fuck around all over the place.”

McNulty has given it some thought. 

“In this play, there are multiple universes we’re jumping in and out of, and depending on which one you’re in, you see a different version of Marianne. And this version has seen some things that have hardened her. This is the Marianne who says emotions don’t compute, so I’m just going to bury my head in my spreadsheets and data.” 

“What I love about this play,” she added, “is that the playwright took something as convoluted as string theory and quantum mechanics and turned them all into a love story between two human beings.

“At the beginning of all this I spent a lot of time questioning what I had to give. What is an actor’s role when everything is crumbling around us? What can we offer? This was boggling my mind for a while,” she said. “I don’t know all the answers. But this play makes me think about how I am spending my time. Am I doing what brings me joy? Am I being loving? Am I being me? The play makes you realize you really have to ask those questions, because we might not have a lot of time.”  v