I’m not going to dilly dally or rush to paint you a picture for this review. Dude, it’s a good show. I don’t mean that in a Eagan mom sort of way, I mean that in a 20 something POC who drinks their coffee black, listens to the Ramones, and actively wants to not like things kind of way. This show is sincere, to the fucking point and the fucking-point (which is different trust me), and brutally honest about so much we take for granted. That being said, allow me to dilly dally for a moment.
I’m running through downtown Minneapolis, because the only exercise I can seem to get is from running late. I get inside the oddly shaped Guthrie theatre, go up the elevator to 4, run to the other elevator to go even higher (because for some reason they designed the building this way), stop to marvel at the yellow that is the yellow room, and make it just before doors are closing. Out of breath and a little razzled, the room goes dark and I hear grunting? It’s a woman and a man- doing the deed- and as the lights slowly come to they finish. This is how Two Degrees starts and it sets up the story pretty well.
The woman, paleoclimatologist Emma Phelps, wonderfully played by Norah Long, has come to DC to advocate for shifts in environmental policy. As the story progresses we see that her mission is really more of an attempted escape from something tragic in her not so distant past. Politicians, lobbyists, Greenlanders (the people of Greenland), and Emma’s late husband come and go in the chronologically fluid story of her getting to DC. The play jumps, slams, and slides scenes together so that we fully understand one crucial thing about the environment and ourselves: what lies beneath the surface is vitally important.
To be clear, Emma has lost her husband. He died under very specific circumstances that speak to the plot of the play and are very involved so I won't mention them, but we do see him a lot. Played by Joel Liestman, Jeffrey Phelps, comes and goes throughout the show in a series of memories. An image of him is even projected on the backdrop when it’s clear that Emma is thinking of him. Jeffery and the life he and Emma led before his death work to show the degree of trauma that Emma feels in the present. The pain is complicated and deep.
As an audience we see Emma in the before and after of this death so we do and don’t understand it. The unfolding mess finally comes together near the end of the show, but when it does you’re confronted with a series of facts about the environment and the world we live in. Because just like Emma, when it comes to the decline of the environment the pain is complicated and deep.
I suspect this was the intent of the show. To show the surprising similarities between a passionate woman in crises and the world. They both need help, they’re hurt by those that unknowingly hurt them, and they need help from people they can’t, yet need to, trust. All of this and a bit more slowly unfolds throughout the show thanks to the work of a dedicated cast.
Norah Long’s Emma is an emotional two-step. While we can feel for her loss it’s hard not to judge the character for being dismissive and judgemental. On one hand she follows her dreams with fervor on the other she abandons her husband. On the hand she wants to protect Greenland on the other she isn’t interested in connecting with the people or culture of Greenland. Her hypocrisy is interesting to watch as she suffers, coalesces, and eventually triumphs. Long explores these feelings in big and little moments, but doesn’t force them with the big ideas. Emma’s actions are big, but Long plays the long game (no pun intended I swear) in showing us who she is with flicks of emotion that matter.
As I mentioned, Joel Liestman play’s Emma’s husband Philip, but Liesterman also plays a variety of different people on stage. He even play’s different ethnicities on stage. It’s sort of fun to watch, but he really does shine the most when playing Chief of Staff Eric Willson. His West Wing styled bravado and quick takes really move the play along at a faster tempo.
Another actor that does this is Touissant Morrison. I don’t want to get bogged down with the exact mechanics of his character, so I’ll just say he is the man Emma is sleeping with at the top of the play. Playing Clay Simpson, Morrison delivers a snide sincerity that you expect humor to develop from, but never see. It’s not a bad thing, it makes one eager when watching him which I assume was the intent. Morrison plays opposite to Long but isn’t nearly as complicated, instead he works to highlight the starkness of her personal and professional hypocrisy.
I really enjoyed the show. It was informative and painful, which is the best kind of pain to watch. I regretted running to this show, so it means a lot when I say, you should run to this show.