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‘Constellations’ melds science and matters of the heart

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Carie Kawa and Robert Gilbert appear in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Constellations.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Everything that can happen does happen and is happening. If you can wrap your mind around that idea, then you’re ahead of the game in understanding British playwright Nick Payne’s 2012 play “Constellations,” now at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Personally, my brain freezes at concepts like quantum mechanics, quantum physics, quantum multiverse and string theory, concepts with which this delicate two-hander is suffused.

Yet “Constellations,” a play that hints at the inexplicable — choice and fate, the cosmos, death and more — is so luminous and affecting that it doesn’t matter whether you’re scientifically minded or not.

At its heart it’s about two people who are (maybe/sometimes/somewhere in the cosmos) in love.

Marianne (Carie Kawa), a professor of cosmology, and Roland (Robert Gilbert), a beekeeper, meet at a barbecue. Their initial encounter could go a variety of ways: They could be mutually attracted — or not. One could be attracted, the other not. One could be available for romance, the other not. Neither could be interested. Or they could simply become friends.

And so it is that in the “Constellations” multiverse, their relationship plays out repeatedly in multiple ways.

Each scene — from that initial awkward barbecue encounter on — is played and replayed many times, with variations, nonlinearly (theoretically, simultaneously).

The variations are sometimes slight — a word or two is changed — and sometimes huge enough to suggest a completely different alternate life.

Under Robert Kelley’s sensitive direction, Gilbert and Kawa segue fluidly from scene to scene, each scene indicated by a brief blackout.

The pair’s instantaneous transitions from one emotional moment to another — and the subtle ways in which those emotional moments affect their characters’ personalities without completely altering their innate selves — is impressive.

In this compact play, running little more than an hour, everything counts: every word, inflection, mood, idea and theory; from Marianne’s first flirtatious approach to Roland (“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick your elbow?” she says) to the various iterations of Roland’s endearing marriage proposal and Marianne’s reactions to it; to Marianne’s attempt to explain the concept of parallel universes to Roland, and her assurance, to him, that we always have all the time we have — neither more nor less.

Played out simply on an almost-bare stage (designer Andrea Bechert’s glowing map of the constellations as a backdrop), “Constellations” is so rich that even if the science, to some, is elusive, the human interactions register powerfully.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes Sept. 17
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, theatreworks.org

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