TimeLine’s goal, to “present stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues...to engage, entertain and enlighten,” is always evident in their productions. In fact, no other Chicago theatre lives as closely by its mission statement, and it’s never been more evident than in this production. Moises Kaufman’s brilliant, heartbreaking story of three quests for fulfillment is filled with passion, pain, beauty and awareness.
Dr. Katherine Brandt, a middle-age musicologist, perseveres against all odds to solve the mystery of why Beethoven devoted the last part of his life to writing variations of a mediocre waltz. Her daughter Clara, another unremarkable work-in-progress, searches for herself as well as for love, especially from her mother. Ludwig Beethoven’s quest drives him to madness while going deaf creating those titular variations. All three find assurance with someone special. Katherine aligns with no-nonsense musicologist, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (nicely played with wry, German coolness by Juliet Hart); Clara forms an attachment to Mike (an engaging earnest Ian Paul Custer), a young nurse who ministers to Katherine’s medical needs; and Anton Schindler, (in a spot-on portrayal by Matthew Krause), Beethoven’s ill-treated servant, who would do anything for his master.
Nick Bowling directs with his signature artistry and compassion, often juggling all seven actors and the past and present at once, allowing the play’s parallels to unfold as the plot thickens. Janet Ulrich Brooks’ Katherine is magnificent: articulate, driven and sometimes poignantly vulnerable, racing against time to complete her work before ALS ravages her body. Like Brooks, Jessie Fisher effortlessly creates a very natural and sympathetic Clara, and Terry Hamilton shines as Beethoven. But amidst all the drama, the real star of this play emerges through Beethoven’s piano music, expertly played center stage by master musician, George Lepauw.