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Local playwright’s creation comes to life

"The Summerland Project," opens Jan. 11 at Theatre Cedar Rapids

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Diana Nollen  ::   UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:49 pm   ::  

We live, we die, the end.

But what if that wasn't the end? What if we could live on?

We're not talking organ donations or cloning. Both are realities borne of long-ago what-ifs.

What if the brain could live on, its waves coursing through a synthetic, robotic body designed to look like our dearly departed selves?

If we, in essence, could bring our loved ones back to life, would we? Should we?

It's a question as old as "Frankenstein" in the 19th century, explored through "Pet Sematary" in the 20th century and "A.I." in the 21st century.

And it's at the heart of "The Summerland Project," opening Jan. 11 at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

"It’s the story of a husband who is given the chance to possibly bring his dead wife back to life through a very revolutionary medical procedure," says playwright Rob Merritt, 36, of Cedar Rapids. "But the question is, is it really her or is it simply a really good, fake copy of her?

"(From) that basic idea, it gets into all these questions about what makes us human. 'The Summerland Project' was driven by a question that I think everyone's asked at some point," he says. "When someone you love dies, you want them back. You would do anything to have them back.

"For a long time I wanted to write a play about that -- about someone who wanted to talk to a loved one again, and then finally getting to. But I couldn’t figure out how to tell that story without going into some spiritual thing,” he says. “I couldn't find a way to do it in the logical, realistic world without making the audience believe in same thing that I do."

Science helped solve that dilemma.

"I've always been a big fan of technology and I'm fascinated by computers and by robotics, and a few years ago, I was reading about how every two years, computers essentially double in size and speed. It's been that way since the '60s," Merritt says.

"It's predicted that if computers keep advancing at the current rate, we will have a computer that's big enough and fast enough to simulate every neuron in the human brain and run a fully functional human brain -- that we will see this happen not only in our lifetimes, but possibly, in the next few decades.

"And if that's true, and we succeed at doing that, then the question is, what would that mean? If you copied a brain that way, would it be human? If it can think and remember exactly like the original one did, then why wouldn't it be alive? And if it isn't, then what is it that makes us human? Our voices, our bodies, something spiritual?

"I felt like once I thought about that, not only did I have a way to tell my story -- the one I wanted to tell for a long time -- I knew that it was an opportunity to explore much bigger themes. And that's where the play came from."

The details


Writing is a natural vehicle for Merritt, a former Gazette Arts & Entertainment editor and former marketing director at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Ten years ago he penned a book on the Columbine school massacre and now makes his living as a freelance writer and editor.

Not surprising for a journalist, deadlines fueled the evolution "The Summerland Project," named not only for the main characters, Carter and Amelia Summerland, but also for the realm where various faiths believe a soul goes between death and an afterlife, called “the summerland,” Merritt says.

He'd been kicking around the play’s central idea for some time, researching the science behind it during the winter and spring of 2011. When Theatre Cedar Rapids announced a June 30 deadline for its November 2011 Underground Theatre Festival, Merritt dived into his script. He developed an outline that April, wrote in May and June, then staged a reading with friends about a week before deadline -- to give him "time" for tweaking his submission.

He says half the writing took place during rehearsals leading up to the November debut in the theater's intimate Grandon Studio. Matthew James, the actor playing Carter Summerland, improvised a monologue at his wife's bedside that was so striking Merritt wrote it into the script. (James is playing the robotics scientist this time around, and Christopher Cole is playing the husband.)

Everything about the 2011 bare-bones production was so striking that Theatre Cedar Rapids staff decided to place it on the mainstage this season and pump up the technical aspects with a multimedia treatment.

"It's still a clean, simple, streamlined design, but what you'll see this time is large screens that function as the walls of the lab, that then become projecting surfaces," says TCR artistic director Leslie Charipar. "Those projections will function as the lab’s computer monitors, too, so whatever’s happening with Amelia (played by Angela Billman) or whatever biological reading the doctors are looking at will be projected up on the lab walls. ...

"A lot of what happens in Amelia's brain will manifest itself on those screens," she says. "The idea behind the design, too, is to keep it visually simple.”

The sound design and live and taped shots will contribute to what Charipar calls “a bit of sensory overload … so that we're sort of inundated with this technology."

Merritt, who directed the show last year, has been involved every step of the rehearsal process this year, says Charipar, who is directing this outing.

"It's a really cool experience for volunteers to go through, working on a new piece when the playwright's sitting in the room," she says. "It's a whole different can of worms. We're making changes on the fly, and they're part of those changes and sometimes they're the reason for those changes. It's an exciting process that a lot of people don’t get to do."



Merritt describes the rehearsals as "very exciting and flattering."

"The play is in such good hands with these incredible professional artists, that it allows me to focus on the script," he says. "As a writer, it's cool to see what happens to your material when completely different people get a hold of it and put their artistic spin on it."

He hopes it continues evolving, with the ultimate goal of seeing it published and gaining new life on other stages.

But for now, he's looking forward to its first steps at home, gauging audience reactions to his creation.

 

 

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