Art Notes: Real-life couple brings a ‘cosmic love story’ to life at Northern Stage

Alex Hanson. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Alex Hanson. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Rob Grant and Izzie Steele rehearse a scene from

Rob Grant and Izzie Steele rehearse a scene from "Constellations," a play by Nick Payne performed at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., until Feb. 11. 2024. (Alia Gonzalez photograph) Alia Gonzalez photograph

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-24-2024 9:00 PM

Modified: 01-26-2024 9:57 AM


Some partnerships seem destined from the start. A pair of elementary school friends who get married out of college and stay together forever, or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, to consider just two scenarios.

But most people in enduring relationships know that the circumstances that brought them together are less a matter of fate than of dumb luck, the other side of the same tossed coin.

Izzie Steele and Robert David Grant, the married couple starring in Northern Stage’s production of “Constellations,” now in previews and opening Saturday night, might not have met if Grant hadn’t looked in on a theater company in New Jersey for something to do before spending a year studying in England.

He landed the role of Sir Walter Blunt in a production of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part I.” Steele was cast as Lady Percy. Though they had no scenes together, Steele said, “we became really good friends.”

“Then it slowly sort of dawned on me that it could be more,” she said in an interview.

In a nutshell, that’s what “Constellations” is about. Billed as a “cosmic love story,” Nick Payne’s intimate play follows two characters, Roland, a beekeeper, and Marianne, a scientist, through the many possible permutations of their relationship. Think of it as a romance written by Jorge Luis Borges, who played with the concept of fate in such works as “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

“I think that bringing in an appreciation of just how fortunate we are to have landed on this particular path in life does allow me to drop into those moments in the play where things could go in a million directions,” Grant said.

While “Constellations” is a play that Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s producing artistic director, has long admired, Grant and Steele deserve a share of the credit for bringing it to life.

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The couple moved to the Upper Valley in 2022. Grant had lived here before, in Vershire and Norwich, before moving away during high school. He had been in several Northern Stage productions and is now the company’s director of education. Steele’s first role at the company was in last year’s “Sense and Sensibility.”

To test out whether to produce “Constellations,” the company had Grant and Steele read through it. The couple’s toddler son, Baz, ran around during the read-through.

“Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it was so delightful,” Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, Northern Stage’s associate artistic director, and the director for “Constellations,” said. They decided, “we want to do the play, but only if Rob and Izzie can do it.”

And they could do it, but only because Grant’s parents now live in Strafford and could babysit during the production.

The show also features music written by Northern Stage sound designer Alek Deva and performed onstage by Rose Van Dyne. The music represents the movement of the cosmos as it separates and reunites the two characters, Wansley said.

“The universe around them feels living and breathing,” she said.

In the 25-plus years of professional theater in the Upper Valley, we’ve seen any number of what the industry calls two-handers. A play with just two characters gives a theater company a chance to catch its breath, and control its budget, after a big production.

But it’s also a welcome change of focus. Directing a big musical is like traffic control, Dunne said.

“There’s a virtuosity that can be shared with an audience in a two-hander,” she said.

For an actor in a two-hander, “there’s no hiding and there’s no waiting for someone else,” Grant said.

Having a married couple play the two characters made for a smoother rehearsal process, Wansley said. Intimacy is easier, she noted, when the two actors are already kissing in their personal life.

“The play asks them to jump in and out of time,” Wansley said. “Because they have all of those shared moments in their history, they’re able to bring truth in their acting, as well.”

Northern Stage’s production of “Constellations” runs through Feb. 11 in the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. For tickets ($19-69) go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

Live music

This looks like a busy weekend for live music, starting Friday night with The Anonymous Coffeehouse in Lebanon’s First Congregational Church. The bill includes Burlington singer-songwriter Grace Palmer, the Cajun-inflected duo of Slattery and Stewart, and Ramblers and Co., a bluegrass trio of Dartmouth undergrads. The show starts at 7:30 and continues after hours with Palmer and the Ramblers heading over to the Salt hill Pub to jam with Dan Freihofer. Admission is free, but a hat is passed for the musicians.

Also Friday night, at 9, James Graham and Co., bring the Lyme singer-songwriter’s mix of original rock, blues, soul and Americana to Hanover’s Sawtooth Kitchen. There’s a $5 cover.

And Saturday night brings the final four of the 11 bands playing the Main Street Museum this month into the quirky White River Junction space. The bill includes local alt-rockers Shy Husky, the Burlington band Phantom Suns, Vallory Falls, which calls itself “Vermont sad pop-punk,” and the Easthampton, Mass., band Ex-Temper, who describe themselves as “Fugazi meets the Andrews Sisters.” The show is all ages and there’s a $10 cover, though no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. The first band starts at 7:30.

Art news

River Valley Community College in Claremont has opened a gallery space with an exhibition of recent work by Manchester artist Emmett Donlon, “whose work deals with themes of queer identity, politics, celebrity and mortality,” according to a notice about the show. The work is on view through May 11 and the gallery is open Mondays through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There’s a website with more information, rivervalley.edu/gallery.

And this is neither here nor there, but it was nice to read a review in The New Yorker of a show of paintings in New York by the late Vermont artist Emily Mason. She was one of the best painters to emerge from the Color Field movement. While she might not be considered a ground-breaking artist, she was a true master, and her virtuosity deserves greater recognition.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.