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Climate change debate is reflected in one woman’s story in play at Guthrie Theater

October 9, 2018

Theres plenty of urgency firing up Prime Productions Two Degrees, now playing in the Guthrie Theaters Dowling Studio. It opens with a scene of passionate lovemaking and closes with a call to change the world. In between these two points it embodies our current national debate about moral certainty and political expediency through one womans intensely personal story.

That woman is a paleoclimatologist played by Norah Long. Emmas ice core research in Greenland has convinced her that the planet is nearing the tipping point in terms of global temperature. Shes come to Washington, D.C., at the behest of Louise (Jennifer Whitlock), a senator and longtime friend, to testify about climate change. To complicate matters, shes sleeping with a man who lobbies on behalf of mineral mining companies while shes simultaneously haunted by guilt, regret and the ghost of her recently deceased husband.

Two Degrees jumps back and forth in time as these and various other plot lines play out. Theres the relationship between Emma and Louise, complicated by a revelation about their shared past. Theres the amiable Greenlander whod be happy to keep Emma warm during long arctic nights. Theres the cynical world of D.C. politics, where Emmas ideals meet partisan realities. And theres the global disaster looming over the play, much like set designer Annie Henlys sculpted glacier-like backdrop.

This production offers much to like. Long capably embodies a woman driven by both rigorous logic and raw, almost palpable, grief. Shes confident in her own discipline and unable to compromise either politically or personally. Shes ably complemented by Joel Liestman, who alternately portrays her dead husband Jeffrey, a Senate aide, and, in an odd plot divergence, the amorous Greenlander.

Toussaint Morrison is engaging as the lobbyist whod like his casual hookup with Emma to evolve into something more. Whitlock is less comfortable in her role as Emmas senator friend, occasionally wobbling as she seeks the correct tone.

The real challenge for director Shelli Place and her cast, however, is the unwieldiness of playwright Tira Palmquists script. Any one of its various threads offers a promising direction. Weave them all together and Two Degrees starts to sag, whiplashed by too many plot twists over the course of 90 minutes.

Despite these weaknesses, this production offers a promising opening for the second season of Prime Productions. This new Twin Cities theatrical venture focuses on the wholly commendable mission of elevating the often invisible presence of women artists over 50. Two Degrees fulfills that mission in fine fashion.

Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.

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