PlayMakers Repertory Company opened the Obie-Award-winning play And God Created Great Whales, Wednesday, January 9 as part of its PRC2 Second Stage Series in the Kenan Theatre on the campus at UNC-Chapel Hill. The one-act play, written and composed by Rinde Eckert, explores the mind of a composer attempting to write a magnum opus with a degenerative disease. His mind is failing. Using a number of tricks to keep himself on-task, Nathan (Eckert) drives himself to complete his work before his mind fails him completely.

Nathan uses tape recorders to keep himself straight, especially one that he keeps around his neck. These recorders tape various aspects of the work he composes so that he can continue to work despite an advancement of the disease he combats. But the greatest trick he employs is the use of a Muse (Nora Cole), who inspires, cajoles, and interacts with the composer as the two battle against time to complete this magnum opus.

This is a staggering work, a play that combines theatrics, music, dance, and literature to create an opera based on the Melville novel, Moby Dick. Eckert has already composed several aspects of the work as support of his efforts on stage, and the music fills our ears as Nathan and the Muse rush to complete the opera. Both Eckert and Cole have operatic voices which often comingle as the two work together. Using a set that consists of little more than a grand piano, Eckert takes us on a journey that is both mythic in proportion and pitiable in its reality, as Nathan must be called back from the brink several times by his muse. Either he gets stuck on one aspect of the work or he goes off completely on tangential aspects, considering life and death and the pursuit of something lost, something with which both he as the playwright and Ahab as his main character must deal.

The eighty-minute work pits the two in a tight battle against time. There is a symbiotic relationship between them, in that they both depend upon the other for their existence. As they progress toward the end of the opus, we see Nathan at the piano, writing, or dancing across the stage, acting out the scene as it unfolds in his head. Often Cole and Eckert raise their voices together, as they battle the clock and Nathan’s illness.

The play is directed by David Schweizer, who has directed each of the play’s incarnations since it was first presented in 2000. The production team that aids Schweizer consists of Scott Pegg as the stage manager and Temishia Johnson, lighting technician. This team has worked on the play since its inception.

Several aspects of the mind are examined in this piece. Eckert studies the mind as mythical creature, something vaguely familiar yet uncomprehended, such as the whale in the 19th century. The average individual may understand the concept of a whale and use the many products that the whale oil supplies, but the actual reaping of the oil is incomprehensible to him. This also applies to the memory, something studied by science and vaguely understood, but the actual way the mind and memory work is beyond what we can fathom. Eckert also relates Nathan and Ahab in search of something lost: Ahab and his leg, Nathan and his memory. Nathan is working feverishly in an attempt to complete himself, in the form of his opus, before his illness overtakes him completely and he is lost to himself. Finally, both Nathan and Ahab are on a quest, an allegory of Man’s spiritual journey.

And God Created Great Whales is a stunner of a play, both in its immense scope and in the power that Eckert and Cole bring to the stage. Eckert, a man above middle age, is nevertheless a man light on his feet, as well as one who can write, compose, and imagine such a work as he goes through it each performance. Cole is a woman who can be both comforter and coworker, as she cajoles and supports Eckert in her role as muse. These two together create a work onstage before us, adding each note to the last in a connection that just barely completes itself before Nathan’s mind betrays him utterly. It is a work that will entertain and confound, whether or not you are an opera buff, a Moby Dick buff, or a student of the theatre.

And God Created Whales continues through Sunday, January 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.