When one of the most exciting writers in the entertainment industry decided to take on one of the most exciting figures in Fort Wayne history, many locals took notice.
Its been four years since Aaron Sorkins play about one-time Fort Wayne resident Philo T. Farnsworth closed on Broadway, and its a good bet that not many Hoosiers had a chance to see it during its three-month run.
This weekend, The Farnsworth Invention finally makes its Fort Wayne debut as a Civic Off-Main production.
It opens today in the auditorium of the main Allen County Public Library for a three-week run.
The play is, in the most general sense, a dramatization of the race to invent television and a patent battle that ensued.
The Farnsworth Invention is paced like a thriller and is exhausting for the cast, says guest director and Chicago resident John W. Tolley, who headed up First Presbyterian Theater for 16 years before leaving in 1990.
From the very beginning, I have pushed these actors, Tolley says, and they have just been so good at picking up on any nuance.
One scene materializes into the next, he says. You dont want any dead spots. Its Aaron Sorkin. Its that West Wing cacophony, almost.
Philo goes through so much and so does this piece, says actor Aaron Willoughby, who plays Farnsworth. It spans over 30 years, during which there are major changes happening in America and abroad. Because there is so much for the audience to experience and retain, the actors really need to bring every ounce of energy to the stage throughout the entirety of the show.
In the play, Farnsworths breakthroughs bring him into conflict with RCAs president David Sarnoff, who has been funding television research at his company. Sarnoff takes advantage of Farnsworths naiveté to appropriate some of his advances, which he then tries to claim as his own in court.
Copious dramatic license was involved in Sorkins rendering of these events. But it is safe to say that, onstage and off, Sarnoff is not well-loved among Farnsworth aficionados.
Actor Bob Ahlersmeyer, who plays Sarnoff, says his wife watched a rehearsal and concluded that his character is not a likable guy.
But Ahlersmeyer says he hopes the play and his portrayal provide opportunities for patrons to understand Sarnoff better and perhaps even admire him a little.
Ahlersmeyer says he did some research into Sarnoff and what he discovered blew my mind.
My eyes were opened to the visionary that he was, he says. His forethought was extraordinary. While he was trying to get radio off the ground, he was looking at television. He was also interested in rockets and early computers. He was the Steve Jobs of the early 20th century.
Tolley says Ahlersmeyers performance has helped him see Sarnoffs complexities.
He was not just an (expletive). he says. He envisioned radio and TV much as public television is today.
Sarnoff was a mogul who appreciated science for how it drives business, and Farnsworth was a scientist who appreciated science for how it drives more science.
Tolley likens the tug of war in the play between science and commerce to the same clash as depicted in Randy Shilts landmark book on the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On.
These purist scientists believed that information should be shared for the good of mankind, Tolley says. But there were others who wanted to protect the possibility of the money they would make.
Tolley says the play is about exploration and is an exposition on personality types.
In this day and age, we call it perceptual thinking patterns, Tolley says. How two very different men go about realizing their dreams when their differences arent named.
At the end of the play, Sorkin ties things up far too neatly for some peoples tastes when he shows Sarnoff prevailing in court (he did not, at least not in the authoritative manner hed intended to prevail).
Sorkin also has the RCA chairman deliver an epitaph of sorts for Farnsworth: Hed live another 25 years after that, but he died drunk, broke and in obscurity, the fictionalized Sarnoff says.
(Farnsworth) had a successful career in Fort Wayne, Tolley says. At his death, he had over 300 patents.
Tolley says the Civic has been contacted by people who worked with Farnsworth or who knew him.
I told that to the cast and they got nervous, he says. There are people out there who can answer questions for us.
Despite the widely divergent outcomes for the main characters, Willoughby says there is an overarching message in the play: Whatever you do in this life, give it your all.
No matter what you strive to undertake, you need to put your entire spirit, energy and being into (it), he says. Sometimes dreams and visions are realized, but other times they come crashing down. It is what you do after and the legacy you leave that sometimes stands the test of time.