Wheaton’s Arena Theater continues their 2017-2018 season with Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” opening tomorrow night and running through Feb. 24. The play alternates between past and present and is centered around the story of Beethoven and why he was compelled to write his famous “Diabelli Variations.” The Wheaton Conservatory’s own Daniel Horn, professor of piano and chair of keyboard studies, accompanies the cast, playing portions of the variations live at every performance.
When asked why he wanted to direct the play at Wheaton, director Mark Lewis explained that his primary motivation was a lifelong friendship. Lewis and Horn have been close friends since the 1980s, when they were both living in New York and were part of a circle of Christians in the arts. They’ve dreamed of working together since coming to Wheaton, and the timing finally seemed right, Lewis said. “We’re not so young that we can wait to do a collaboration like this!” Horn remembered thinking.
The show needed a well-seasoned cast who could perform what the play demands. Lewis said this year’s senior students are “the strongest we have had in terms of number of people and just their commitment to one another and to theater that I can remember.” Six out of seven of the cast members are seniors.
Senior Daniel Shute plays Beethoven during the period of his life when he was going deaf. He said he wasn’t planning to audition but was struck by the way playwright Moises Kaufman presents the famed composer. “Historically, when we think about Beethoven, he’s almost not a person,” Shute explained. “I feel like it would be very easy to write a play about Beethoven where he is a mythical figure and doesn’t have any problems.” But instead of shying away from the humanity of Beethoven, the play “deals more with his flaw than it deals with his genius,” he said.
In the play’s other storyline, senior Carolyn Waldee portrays a musicologist who’s been diagnosed with ALS. Waldee said she also wasn’t planning to audition until she read a pivotal scene that challenged her to play such a vulnerable character. “I’ve been surprised by how much I connect with her,” she said. “She’s in a stage of life that I’m not in yet, but there are still parts about her that I really connect with.” Waldee said portraying a character with the debilitating disease has made her look differently at people struggling with chronic illness.
As for the variations themselves, Horn sees them as “basically a member of the cast.” Rather than “merely background music,” the pieces are actually what drive the story, he said. Why was Beethoven compelled to spend so much valuable time writing thirty-three variations of an obscure waltz? Lewis said he hopes that the audience will feel the amazement he does when he hears the variations played. “God designed human beings to do that!” he said. “To be able to conceive of music like that and then make it happen in a room with other people … is absolutely extraordinary.” Horn will be playing the Variations in their entirety at a special concert on March 19 in Pierce Chapel.
Shute and Waldee emphasized the humanity of the story. “It’s a play about realizing that you’re going to die,” Waldee said. “That’s a universal experience.” Shute added that “it’s about people and struggling between their ambitions and their relationships.”
“33 Variations” is playing through Feb. 24. Tickets are available online and in Lower Beamer.