by Robert Attenweiler · August 12, 2014
There is a point early on when The Death of Thomas Edison really fires on all cylinders, making the audience say, to use the company’s own words, “I don’t know what the hell that was, but I want to see it again.” As part of an opening sequence where the only words are a recording of Edison’s own, the actors shift about against a projected montage in which a superimposed rain has begun to fall. The Woman with the Handbag opens up an umbrella that has been stripped of all its fabric. She raises this metallic, claw-like frame above her head just as a lightning bolt flashes across the projection appearing (at least from where I was sitting) to strike the top of The Woman’s umbrella.
It was a beautiful image, relevant to the play’s titular subject (Edison and, hence, electricity) and just plain theater-magic fun. Unfortunately, too much of the show that followed had the audience saying the first part of the quoted reaction above without including the all-important second part.
The Death of Thomas Edison is presented by Norfolk, Virginia company Warehouse of Theatre who describe their work as speaking “through a juxtaposition of images and poetic language, interspersed with raw expression.” The images, particularly the Projection Design by Katherine Hammond, who also directed the show, are this show’s strength. The language, though, is another matter. The play’s writer, Lee Smith, jumps right into Vladimir and Estragon Land when Edison wakes in a limbo-ish, afterlife-ish place with his only companions being a hobo named Ratbag (who happens to also be an inventor… God) and his son, a hand puppet who spouts son-of-Godisms like “Father, why have you forsaken me?” until he is eventually ripped to pieces. Smith’s attempts to fill this world with bawdy humor (talk of Ratbag’s erection moves on to a reference to the “wood” his son was nailed to) never really shock or amuse enough to carry the audience through this loosely told, expressionistic piece and very quickly the language feels less like poetry than like bombastic flourish.
The company states the question of the play as “what if Edison’s inventions were not the miracles of progress but rather the destruction of society?” This is an ambitious and potentially rich question to attempt to dramatize and there is an interesting exchange where Ratbag describes how Edison’s lightbulb rendered the majesty of God’s light-out-of-darkness commonplace. What comes across more clearly, though, is a story about how Edison needs to make peace with the memory of his first wife, Mary, who may have died of a morphine overdose, in order for both Mary and himself to continue on into whatever afterlife awaits them.
Edwin Castillo (Ratbag) and Rob Wilson (Edison) are likable, though, despite the difficult material, with the strong, physical Wilson being a particularly interesting re-imagining of the legendary man of science. Ultimately, though, The Death of Thomas Edison doesn’t give its audience enough to really hold on to, not enough of a journey, making the show feel like 60-minutes of expressionism, instead of the fulfilling theater-magical ride that, at its best, the show promises.