While I enjoy theatre, I'm not the kind of theatergoer who often has a cathartic reaction or bursts into tears when seeing a play. I could probably count the times I've been moved to tears. Such a momentous occasion happens maybe once a decade. After seeing 33 Variations, I'm guessing I'm safe for another 10 years. If this brilliant drama doesn't move you or elicit some deep emotional response, nothing will.
The play by Moisés Kaufman is a beautiful and well-crafted piece of work. Kaufman gives us three stories. The first is the story of the elderly and now hearing impaired Ludwig van Beethoven's obsession with creating variations on a mediocre melody written by music publisher Anton Diabelli. The second is the present day story of Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who tries to unravel the mystery of Beethoven's obsession with Diabelli's inferior tune as she grapples with the progression of her amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. The final plotline involves a budding romance between Katherine's daughter, Clara, and her nurse, Mike. Kaufman weaves all three plotlines together, creating a symphony that grows and crescendos by the end of the evening. His play is, in essence, a variation on variations.
Despite the weighty subject matter of ALS, Kaufman doesn't ever fall into any of the traps that often plague dramas about death and disease. You never feel sorry for Katherine. You never pity her. Sure, you feel sad for the rotten hand life's given her, but you applaud her strength, stubbornness, and tenacity. The same could be said of Kaufman's treatment of Beethoven's loss of hearing. He never lets the play become a play about disability. Instead, it is a play about how our ability is challenged and how we rise to the occasion. Not only does Kaufman handle the material with elegance and grace, but he also includes many strong doses of humor, often of the darker variety. One scene in which Katherine's family and friends consider buying her a male prostitute before it's too late for her to enjoy it elicited plenty of belly laughs from the audience.
Director Dave Steakley's handling of the material mirrors that of Kaufman. Nothing is overwrought, sentimental, or heavy handed. This is a refreshingly real look at a disease not many of us know about and even fewer of us talk about, and Steakley pulls out just the right amounts of both comedy and drama to create an entirely balanced show. His design team is equally as sublime. Cliff Simon's scenic design creates the world of both Beethoven and Katherine by mixing images of musical notes and an archival library. Michelle Habeck bathes the stage in deep blue lighting, and the costumes by Alison Heryer, particularly the period costumes worn by Beethoven and his associates, are beautiful.
Still, 33 Variations is a play that depends more on strong performances than anything else, and this production is brilliantly cast. The choice to utilize famed Austin-based pianist Anton Nel to provide live musical accompaniment is a fantastic one, and hearing him play is a treat in itself. As Beethoven, Peter Reznikoff brings a certain amount of humanity and humor to a composer that I always assumed was cold and calloused (anyone who wrote those first four cords of Beethoven's 5th Symphony couldn't be a happy-go-lucky kind of guy). Brian Coughlin adds to the humor by playing Anton Diabelli as a self-important snob, and Greg Baglia plays Beethoven's servant, Anton Schindler as a somewhat neurotic lapdog. In the second plotline, Barbara Chisholm is a standout as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the stoic and cold librarian at the Bonn archives who eventually becomes Katherine's best friend. Christin Sawyer Davis is fascinating as Clara, Katherine's daughter who wishes to repair the strained relationship between them, and Lincoln Thompson is adorable as Katherine's charming but quirky nurse.
But the real star of the show is Beth Broderick as Katherine. Stepping into a role created on Broadway by Jane Fonda is not an easy feat, but Broderick is absolutely perfect. She performs with such grace and dignity, and every moment is carefully crafted. The way she portrays the progression of ALS is eerily accurate and altogether remarkable, and she easily uncovers her character's strengths and courage as well as her occasional moments of crippling fear.