Intellectually demanding yet accessible, Goat in the Road’s production of “Numb” is an occasionally wobbly, but ultimately rewarding, evening based on the strength of its acting company and the directorial skill of creator Chris Kaminstein.
As a history of anesthesiology, Kaminstein’s text is not always easy, and at times, it falls too deeply under its own spell. But like the men and women whom it follows, its vision far outweighs its failings.
And whatever “Numb’s” dramaturgical shortcomings are, Kaminstein has few rivals in town when it comes to staging.
The past few weeks have seen assured directorial work in New Orleans’ theaters from both Ricky Graham and Beau Bratcher with Rivertown’s “One Man Two Guvnors” and Le Petit’s “Peter and The Starcatcher” respectively, and Kaminstein’s work joins theirs in what has been as strong a stretch of theatrical production in New Orleans.
Working in the tight but deep confines of the temporarily named Ether Dome on St. Claude Avenue, Kaminstein moves three couples through the space creating two continents and a decade-and-a-half of medical history.
Whereas Bratcher’s work was muscularly imaginative and Graham’s a comic clockwork, Kaminstein employs a surgical precision in telling the story of a fateful dinner party of scientists and that dinner’s impact on how pain is treated for the purposes of surgery.
Those familiar with Goat in the Road’s co-artistic director Kaminstein’s work as a writer and director will see his fingerprints all over “Numb.” It is an intellectual approach that doesn’t feel the need to show how smart it is.
In other words, he strives to give his audience a good time inside the heady material. Remind yourself you are enjoying a tale about the properties of nitrous oxide.
He substitutes Kyle Sheehan’s complicated sound design for traditional props allowing the actors to mime the majority of the world edified instead by aural effects. Glasses clink, bottles clunk and logs crackle with flame. By the time the evening ends, you begin to think you saw the things implied.
Eschewing a complex scenic look, he lets Joan Long’s lights isolate, explode and reveal a time still illuminated by candlelight and fireplace.
You know when people are in front of the warmth of their own fire, can feel the late summer air in the light of sunset and get a chill from the streetlights that cast their beams on ladies of the evening.
And Kaminstein employs a realistic conversational approach from his performers that has the desired effect of creating accessibility in a structurally difficult text.
Every one of his actors is up to the task. Todd D’Amour as a troubled dentist, Shannon Flaherty as his long-suffering wife, Leslie Boles Kraus as a writer in need of surgery, Ian Hoch as an aging scientist, Dylan Hunter as an adventurous experimenter and Francesca McKenzie as a woman confined by the mandates of her time all shine from beginning to end.
With each playing more than one character, their work in using their voices and bodies to not only create human portraits but a time period as well is striking. In particular, their vocal work captures a rhythm that seems of another world.
“Numb’s” failing comes from its text.
It is simply too long. Over an hour and a half without intermission, its conclusion works against much of what it has created over its first 60 minutes.
Interpretive dances, syncopated movements and the need to tie up its personal stories hijack the show’s final scenes, lengthening the experience to the point of distortion.
And that distortion creates a troubling tonal change.
After feeling like a joyful, albeit quirky, examination of a 19th century medical breakthrough, “Numb” takes a dark turn.
Despite the groggy feeling produced by its final movement, “Numb” nonetheless lingers in the system long after the company has taken its final bow.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.