Isaac Newton once stuck a needle into his eye. No one knows why he did it.
It's on the blackboard so it must be true.
Urbanite Theatre in Sarasota is winding up its sensational first season with "Isaac's Eye," a smart, entertaining and wholly original play by Lucas Hnath.
It's based on some real events in the life of Newton. Hnath (pronounced "Nayth") doesn't let facts get in the way of good theater, though. The characters do a lot of things they never did in real life. Newton hatches a scheme to blackmail a rival scientist, for example, and expose him as a pedophile unless he abandons his work.
That never happened, really. But a lot of stuff that happens in "Isaac's Eye" is historically and scientifically accurate. Hnath doesn't want to trick you in to believing stuff he made up, so he has his characters write anything that's historically true on a blackboard at the rear of the stage.
That's just one of the striking innovations in Hnath's play.
The action starts with a young Newton, played by Ben Williamson, who's ready and eager to have his genius recognized by England's scientific elite. With reluctant help from Catherine (Asolo's Kim Stephenson), his life-long friend who's in love with him, he develops a plan to show his work to Robert Hooke, one of the leading scientists of the era.
Hooke, who's played by Robby May, is threatened by the young Newton, whose work parallels his own, and seeks to squelch his work.
But he's intrigued by one experiment Newton proposes, which involves shoving a needle into his own tear duct to see the effect that has on the perception of color.
Despite the scientific backdrop, "Isaac's Eye" is anything but dry. It's full of ideas, but it's also full of intrigue, comedy, romance and explorations of the human psyche.
Hnath's script and Urbanite's production are set in no particular time -- the dialogue is entirely in modern vernacular and Becky Leigh's costumes are a mix of contemporary and period elements -- and a narrator (Tom Stopperan) addresses the audience directly. Urbanite is an intimate theater, and it's configured here with the audience in a horseshoe around the stage, so the actors are sometimes literally only a few inches away.
The whole cast, directed by Vincent Carlson-Brown, is wonderful. Williamson's boyish naivete is convincing, but there's enough darkness underneath his characterization of Newton that it seems logical when he turns vicious. Stephenson is radiant, as usual, as the play's most thoroughly likeable character, and Stopperan is especially impressive in his secondary role as a dying man whom Hooke and Newton abuse to sate their scientific curiosity,
May, though, turns in perhaps the most commanding performance you'll see this year on a local stage. He's an imposing presence on stage, but that presence withers when events turn against him and his semi-evil character becomes pathetic.
In the end, though, it's not at all clear what the point of Hnath's play is supposed to be, or even if there is one. It sometimes seems that he's trying to undermine Newton's reputation, but in an epilogue he pulls those punches. Newton never blackmailed anyone, and didn't even meet Hooke at this early point in his life Hnath tells us.
The lack of a statement might annoy audiences after they leave the theater, but Hnath offers such a thrilling ride that while the play's going on no one will notice.
This play marks the end of Urbanite's three-show summer season, but the company will offer another short season in the winter. Those plays haven't been announced yet. Eventually Urbanite plans to produce plays all through the year.
Details: Through Sept. 6, Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20; students with ID $5. Information: 941-321-1397, urbanitetheatre.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.