Emily Ranii’s Staging of Heisenberg at Burning Coal Couldn’t Be Better

Sarah Hankins and Tom McCleister star as Georgie and Alex (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Sarah Hankins and Tom McCleister star as Georgie and Alex (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Sarah Hankins and Tom McCleister star as Georgie and Alex (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Sarah Hankins and Tom McCleister star as Georgie and Alex (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Introduced first in 1927 by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-76), the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. Or to put it another way, the more one focuses on an object, the less you know about where it is heading! In the uncertain world offered up in English dramatist Simon Stephens’ delightful play, Heisenberg, we meet two quirky characters; and the more we get to know them, the less certain we become abouty where they are headed. In the capable hands of Burning Coal Theatre Company director Emily Ranii, through laughter, surprises, and tears, the audience eagerly anticipates the answers.

As the play opens, we see a middle-aged Georgie (Sarah Hankins), sitting on a bench in a train station trying to start a conversation with Alex (Tom McCleister’s), who apparently wants none of it. He makes his displeasure known by stuffing his earbuds deeper and deeper into his ears. Georgie is stubbornly oblivious. Through her incessant chatter, we quickly learn that Georgie is a foul-mouthed, single mom who has not heard from her grown son in several years. She is desperate to try to make contact with her long-lost son. She is just as desperate, it seems, to make conversation with Alex.

Through terse answers, we learn that Alex is a well-to-do butcher in London who has never married, has no family, and lives alone. Both characters are just odd. Alex is a reserved Brit with a stiff upper lip and who has the level of eccentricity expected from one accustomed to living his life alone. After their brief encounter at the train station, they part.

When Georgie surprises Alex by visiting his butcher shop, he is taken aback. She cheerfully admits that she came all the way to London to tell him that much of what she told him during their brief discussion at the train station was a lie. This admission sends the play on a new trajectory. Why in the world would Georgie feel compelled to make a long journey to confess her deceit to a total stranger whom she met at a train station. Why did she lie in the first place? Which parts of her story are really a lie? What are her motives? The more you focus on her, the more fascinating she becomes.

Sarah Hankins and Tom McCleister star as Georgie and Alex (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Sarah Hankins and Tom McCleister star as Georgie and Alex (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

The storytelling is superb. The pacing is smooth and brisk. Sarah Hankins brings real heart to Georgie. Her nervous cheerfulness belies the pain of missing her child — if she really has a child! Ms. Hankins sheds real tears and makes her character fascinating to Alex and the audience alike. We all want to figure her out; we all want to know more.

Tom McCleister’s Alex is just as noteworthy. Although he is hesitant to make a connection with Georgie, he desperately wants to do so, even as her story changes. These characters give each other hope — and fear. Each is scared of being hurt, but they desperately need one another.

Director Emily Ranii’s staging couldn’t be better. With a single farm table and three chairs, scenic and lighting designer E.D. Intemann gives the audience a minimalist set that easily morphs from train station to butcher shop to restaurant. Beatriz Wright’s sound design includes soulful stringed music and wizardry that hinted at passing trains.

Heisenburg speaks of universal truths. Loneliness. Deceit. Betrayal. Hope. Fear. Feeling different. Feeling alone. The play lets us into the lives of these damaged and quirky people; and in doing so, we don’t feel so alone.

The play also asks important questions. At what point do we choose to believe anything in this world of uncertainty? Can we believe what people claim about their histories? Can we plan for the future? Is love worth the risk of being hurt? This intense examination of two lost people lets us take an extraordinary journey and find our own answers.

Tom McCleister and Sarah Hankins star as Alex and Georgie (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)
Tom McCleister and Sarah Hankins star as Alex and Georgie (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8312; Jan. 20th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article127727334.html; and Jan. 18th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/heisenberg/Event?oid=5097865.

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents HEISENBERG at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21, 2 p.m. Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26-28, 2 p.m. Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2-4, and 2 p.m. Feb. 5 in Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604, near the Historic Oakwood Section.

TICKETS: $25 ($15 students and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors), except “Pay-What-You-Can” Day on Sunday, Jan. 22nd, $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain), $15 Thursdays, and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://burningcoal.org/heisenberg/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/167083563771156/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA1q5CgyqqY.

STUDY GUIDE: http://burningcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/heissgsm.pdf.

PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/Burning.Coal.Theatre, and https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc.

VENUE/DIRECTIONS: http://burningcoal.org/murphey-school-auditorium/.

NOTE 1:The 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22nd, show is a Pay-What-You-Can Performance.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22nd, performance.

“WARNING: [This play contains] some strong language (very lite R),” according to Burning Coal.


Heisenberg (2015 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5262 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Simon Stephens (English playwright): http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsS/stephens-simon.html (Doollee.com: The Playwrights Database), https://twitter.com/StephensSimon (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Stephens (Wikipedia).

Emily Ranii (director and assistant professor of performing arts at Wheelock College in Boston, MA): http://burningcoal.org/emily-ranii/ (Burning Coal bio), http://www.wheelock.edu/academics/faculty-and-administration/ranii-emily (Wheelock College bio), and https://www.facebook.com/emily.ranii (Facebook page).


Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

1 comment

  1. While I appreciate the kind mention, it should be noted that David Ranii was the music designer for Heisenberg. I only did editing and effects.

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