No one knows why Beethoven accepted composer Anton Diabelli's invitation to write a variation on his humble waltz.
At first the genius ignored the request, but at some point, he became obsessed by the challenge. Indeed, as his hearing failed and his illnesses mounted, the great master put aside working on the legendary Ninth Symphony in order to write not one but "33 Variations" on this modest theme.
Finding the reason for this fascination becomes a raison d'être for brainy musicologist Katharine Brandt in Moises Kaufman's wistful drama. Suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, aware that her own time on the planet is running out, she becomes determined to prove that Beethoven was driven to turn the mediocre composition into a masterpiece.
While this Tony-nominated play suffers from predictable elements, it also spins a seductive mystery about the connections between past and present, art and life, hope and despair in director Robert Kelley's delicate and handsomely staged production, a regional premiere that runs through Oct. 28 at TheatreWorks.
Kaufman is not as deft weaving history and drama together here as he was in "Gross Indecency" or "The Laramie Project," but he has crafted a formidable role for an actress of a certain age. Played by Jane Fonda on Broadway, Katherine, played here by Rosina Reynolds, is made of iron mentally, even as her body deteriorates. The playwright subtly suggests that change is the key of life, that
The nimble-witted scholar has little patience for her daughter, Clara (a wonderfully wry Jennifer Le Blanc), a costume designer for whom career is not the pinnacle of life; for other musicologists who have differing theories about Beethoven (played by the incomparable Howard Swain); or indeed even for her own frailty.
At a time when most people would devote themselves to family, Katherine buries herself in the Beethoven archives in Bonn, hoping to crack the mystery before she dies.
Reynolds charts Katherine's tenacity and her will to hold onto her dignity with nuance, but the family drama seems a little formulaic. There's more freshness and wit in the disarming romance between Clara and her mother's nurse Mike (Chad Deverman) or in the tart advice doled out by Gertie (Marie Shell), the woman who manages the archive.
Certainly, Katherine's journey is often upstaged by the fury of Beethoven.
Swain is simply marvelous as Ludwig. The veteran actor captures both the swagger of the genius and his vulnerability in a performance shot through with insight into the artistic temperament. While there are times when the text edges into melodrama, Swain's performance has such symphonic richness that it always feels earned and genuine.
Michael Gene Sullivan (a San Francisco Mime Troupe veteran) adds a touch of elegance to Diabelli, the small-time music publisher who unwittingly unleashed the full force of Beethoven's imagination.
The maestro riffed on the waltz endlessly, turning it into everything from a march to a fugue. At the end of his life, as deafness engulfed him, poverty dogged him, and his music fell out of favor, Beethoven clung to the variations, to the secrets he alone heard there.
Kaufman's insights into that process, the way an artist becomes who they are through their work, buoy this play. Listening to the music (played by William Liberatore) as we watch Beethoven parse Diabelli's 16 little bars into a magnum opus is a study in art as a dialogue between the artist and the observer.
Beethoven's sketches (projections by Jim Gross) are mesmerizing in their celebration of the chaos of creativity. Soup stains, scribbles, water marks and crossed-out notes give us a glimpse into the messy birth of the sublime.
By Moises Kaufman
Through: Oct. 28
Where: TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $23-$73, 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org