American Caliban: In the Folgers new Tempest, the monster is resurgent.s new Tempest, the monster is resurgent.
American Caliban: In the Folgers new Tempest, the monster is resurgent.s new Tempest, the monster is resurgent.

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Ever been so out of sorts, so down on yourself, or so distanced from the people around you that you felt like a stranger in your own body? You’ve got nothing on Sleeping and Waking’s Sullivan Daniels. It’s 60 years in the future, see, and Sully, a painter and art-­history professor, is the first healthy, normally functioning recipient of a head transplant.

Or a body transplant, I suppose: The head is his, and the sense of self, too, but the disease-riddled 32-year-old corpus that came with them has been replaced. Sully’s a medical miracle—and a bit of a mess. When he tries to paint, the images in his head don’t come out right; when he says, “I have my father’s hands” and raises his hands to show us, he’s forced to stop and change the tense. It’s enough to make a fellow avoid his judgmental mother and retreat from his long-suffering wife; it’s enough to make a guy agonize over whether the “I” he remembers is anything like the scientific marvel he’s become.

What’s endearing about Chris Stezin’s play, which gets its premiere in an agreeably fluid staging at the Charter Theatre, is how un-marvel-ous Sullivan actually is. He’s just a guy, ultimately, and an interestingly troubled one at that; the futuristic premise, once the story’s under way, turns out to be mostly a clever way of framing the questions Stezin wants to raise—about what it means to lose faith and how a person stays anchored when all the world’s come loose from its moorings.

And yet Stezin’s conceit is more than just a gimmick. A real poignancy attends Ian Le Valley’s delicate, detailed reading. There’s humor, too, of both the self-­deprecating and the self-lacerating kinds, and the wonder of this performance is that you’ll realize—with no little surprise, given what you have to believe to get there—that the pain behind it all feels, of all things, earned.

Ray Ficca is Le Valley’s loose and engaging complement, a sidekick who’s suffered losses of his own. It’s another subtly rich performance: Ficca has applied sheer physical-comedy craft to make something satisfyingly textured out of a part that might seem underwritten on another actor’s shoulders.

If the play’s emotional rhythms seem a little hurried now and then, if a scene seems to lose itself in a narrative cul-de-sac or a character seems to exist mostly so Sully will have someone to talk to about his long-dead father—well, that’s why companies like Charter specialize in putting new plays up on their feet. It’s hard to see the flaws until a person or a play has the luxury—and the nerve—to stand up, whole and vulnerable, and present itself for inspection. After a false start and a certain amount of angst, Sully gets it more or less right the second time around. I imagine Sleeping and Waking will, too.