'Farnsworth Invention' an evening of discovery

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 3, 2011

By Deirdre Parker Smith
No, it’s not a musical or a farce, but you should give “The Farnsworth Invention,” Piedmont Players’ latest production, a try.
First of all, you will appreciate the outstanding work by the two leads, Brian Romans as Philo Farnsworth and Seth Labovitz as David Sarnoff and you’ll get a quick review of American history.
Both Romans and Labovitz are comfortable on stage, both have memorized a tremendous number of lines — especially Romans, who has to sound like he knows exactly what cesium does — and both have to convince the audience who’s right.
Labovitz has the task of being the “bad guy,” if there is one in this show. You might recognize the Sarnoff name. He was the head of NBC and RCA, even before there was television.
But you won’t remember Farnsworth, which is a shame.
This play is all about who invented television. Farnsworth should have gotten the credit for the first patent, but a Russian named Vladimir Zworykin, who worked for Sarnoff, ends up with the credit. But no one’s ever heard of him, either.
What unfolds on stage is the two men telling their stories, Farnsworth and Sarnoff, through a series of remembered scenes.
Farnsworth comes off as the sympathetic one, a young genius from Idaho, with one year at Brigham Young University. With his wife, Pem, played by Linda Castillo, his brother-in-law Cliff, played by Jacques Belliveau, a college student, Stan, played by Casey Suddeth, and Harlan, the refrigeration guy, played by Robert Hackett, and a few thousand dollars, he goes to work on his wonder.
Beyond telling the mostly unknown story of who actually invented the television set, the play tells quite a lot of history, with an explanation of the Great Depression, the story of civil war in Russia, the patent fight, right on up to the moon landing.
There are funny moments — but this play is more like a docudrama, with plenty of talk and no slamming doors.
Director Reid Leonard’s clever set, a raked platform with sections that travel like a moving walkway, manages to keep the story moving, literally.
You can guess the era from the ladies’ clothes and hair, and get the idea of authority from the ever-present suits.
The key here is to sit back and listen. You don’t have to understand the science of getting moving pictures to travel through the air to a special tube in your home, but you might learn something.
You’ll learn about big corporations, and the people who helped build America, and, if you’re so inclined, who to blame for advertising on radio and television.
Near the end, Sarnoff tells of Farnsworth’s alcoholism and death as a pauper. A real American tragedy — actually some real poetic license to spice up the play. The real Farnsworth went on to earn hundreds of patents and worked on fusion technology.
There’s a huge supporting cast, which includes two Piedmont employees, who happen to be stage veterans, Justin Dionne and Jonathan Furr, full of authority in their many roles.
The play comes in at just over two hours, including a 20-minute intermission. This isn’t a show for children — just not enough action — but it is a show for a hot, almost-summer night that showcases some of Salisbury’s most entertaining actors.
“The Farnsworth Invention,” continues tonight and Saturday and June 8-11 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2:30 p.m. matinee this Sunday. It is underwritten by Caniche, Fisher Street Interiors, the Lettered Lily and Martin and Deborah Walker. For tickets, call 704-633-5471.