When I went to see Southern Rep Theatre’s 33 Variations — a show about one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s later compositions — I worried that I’d get lost in references to classical music. But this was not the case. Playwright Moises Kaufman uses Beethoven’s music to punctuate certain moments and propel an interwoven storyline in a captivating and accessible way.
The central story in 33 Variations follows musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Maggie Eldred) as she travels to Bonn, Germany, to conduct research at the Beethoven-Haus archive. She is trying to learn why Beethoven spent more than four years composing 33 variations of Anton Diabelli’s (Silas Cooper) “commonplace” waltz. She wants to know “how a genius became obsessed with mediocrity,” because there is no historical documentation of why he took such an interest in that particular waltz.
Katherine has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), and her daughter Clara (Jessie Terrebonne Thompson) accompanies her to help care for her. “Most people when they’re diagnosed want to stay home and spend time with their family,” says nurse Mike (Mike Harkins), who later assumed a larger role in Clara’s life. In Germany, the complicated mother-daughter relationship was unpacked like an overstuffed suitcase. The acting in this show was stellar, and occasional melodramatic mother-daughter conversations were palatable.
The present-day drama is interwoven with the story of Beethoven creating masterpieces while struggling to earn a living and dealing with bouts of severe illness. Eventually, he became deaf. One of the transcendent scenes comes when Beethoven works out a fugue, a type of composition that was known to be challenging for him. Beethoven, played brilliantly by Phillip Karnell, calls out a series of commands, “Forte and double it,” and off-stage, concert pianist Chia-Hsing Lin played the music a split-second later. Their collaboration in the scene was moving.
Only a fraction of the 33 variations are played during the show — and not in order.
The effective set is bare at the beginning, then the action shifts to a massive library with sheet music that covers the walls to the ceiling.
As does Beethoven's, Katherine’s health ultimately takes a turn for the worst. Her health deteriorates and she becomes confined to a wheelchair. Eldred gives an inspired performance; with every facial spasm we feel Katherine’s pain. In this diminished state, Katherine must grapple with her fears and learn to live in the moment. In 33 Variations, Beethoven’s music is the soundtrack for the characters’ search for what’s more important — the journey of exploration or the final answer.
Through Sept. 29
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Southern Rep at the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., (504) 522-6545