Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg at Burning Coal Is an Intelligent Antidote to Love Story Cliché

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.)
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.)

A monolithic black wall. In silver, a slender, curving integral sign () reaches from floor to ceiling. Its twin is on the floor of the playing space.

The integral sign is a calculus operation that determines the characteristics of a variable as it changes over time. It features heavily in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that “The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.

If one is left perplexed by this, fear not. I shall explicate.

The interactions between two humans in a brief play are not always particularly complex. But British playwright Simon Stephens is not one to shy away from complication. His most successful endeavor to date is 2012’s Tony Award®-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose national tour will set up camp at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Feb. 21-26. That elaborately designed play, based on Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, examines the thought processes of a young British boy with autism as he navigates the world — hardly a straightforward writing exercise.

Heisenberg, by contrast, is a minimalist text, almost solely dialogue — both a blessing and burden to the Burning Coal Theatre Company director and the design team. One has the freedom to create freely, but where does on begin? Stephens does not care about the design, save the fact that the seams should be visible: props, the walls of the theater, the lighting grid, etc. “The stage should be as bare as possible” is his most emphatic direction in the script. There is little else.

Director Emily Ranii and lighting/scenic designer E.D. Intemann have taken the author at his word. A black-and-gray set, dressed only with a sleek black table and three high-back chairs, serves as train station, apartment, public park, and butcher shop. Intemann’s lighting is more mood-based than environmental, and the subtle shifts between the icy isolation of the apartment and the warm daylight of the park are evocative rather than ostentatious. Neither Intemann nor Ranii attempts to speak down to their audience with verbose design.

Props designer Elizabeth Newton has likewise kept things simple, opting to include only the objects that are referenced in the dialogue. Katy Werlin’s costume design delineates the two personalities: the textured, colorful Georgie and the stark, gray Alex. Thankfully, we are unimpeded needless costume changes, a note that many productions should take. The dissonant and haunting string score by David Ranii emphasizes the tonal abnormalities in the relationship.

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 variables between the two characters are myriad. Moods oscillate, power dynamics alternate, and the “love story” begins to deviate. It is not possible to determine where these characters are going and where they will end up. Just as we near homeostasis, beginning to understand how they feel about each other and how they might grow, dramatist Simon Stephens changes the scene. The uncertainty principle is reinstated, and we try in vain to pinpoint where we are headed yet again.

Director Emily Ranii’s scenes flow with the speed and energy of a gamma wave toward a mostly unpredictable conclusion. She has staged her actors simply and has given them room to work. Their movement is intent-driven and purposeful, not merely directed. This machine has no spare parts. Sanford Meisner would be proud. Using the actors as deck crew permits the audience to remain tethered to them through transitions, allowing the duo to literally transform their own emotional playing space as the story progresses.

Sarah Hankins is fortysomething New Jersey native Georgie Burns. Georgie is flighty, impulsive, and mercurial — qualities that Hankins amplifies soundly. A few early moments appear somewhat forced, and she is occasionally jarring; but this is an accurate reflection of the character. Both actor and audience soon reach an understanding about her inherent unpredictability; she snaps between jocularity and solemnity faster than any pendulum.

Tom McCleister is 75-year-old Bolton, UK native Alex Priest. He is appropriately named, as Georgie confesses her every thought to him. He is at once content and melancholy. McCleister maneuvers between the islands of the misanthropic Alex and the one yearning for human bonding. His work in this production is superbly understated, though the absence of a distinctly British accent is somewhat baffling.

If one is in the mood for a thinking-person’s play, Heisenberg is a welcome antidote to love story cliché. If one is interested in seeing a rendition of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, I would make a date with Netflix. Allow yourself to be intrigued and shaken by these characters. Doing the math and determining the many uncertain variables is what makes this piece so captivating and satisfying.

Heisenberg runs 85 minutes, without an intermission. It vibrates in Rated R space for coarse language and sexual innuendo.

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.)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 25th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): and Jan. 18th mini-preview by Byron Woods:; Jan. 22nd Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter:; Jan. 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall:; and Jan. 20th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 20th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents HEISENBERG at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26-8, 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 $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

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


Heisenberg (2015 Off-Broadway play): (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).

The Script: (Google Books).

Simon Stephens (English playwright): ( The Playwrights Database), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

Emily Ranii (director and assistant professor of performing arts at Wheelock College in Boston, MA): (Burning Coal bio), (Wheelock College bio), and (Facebook page).


Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.