But Toronto’s theatre Unit 102 Actors Company got to Hnath first with Isaac’s Eye, the official Toronto debut of a Hnath play.
Long-time stage designer Adam Belanger directs for the first time with this dark comedy, which premiered in 2013 and dramatizes the events surrounding an odd but true fact from the life of scientist Isaac Newton: that he once stuck a “bodkin” (a sewing needle) in his eye and proceeded to poke around.
That moment from Newton’s experiments is the springboard that Hnath uses to dig into the thin membrane (pardon the visual) between confidence and hubris in the search for scientific truths.
In Isaac’s Eye, Newton (Christo Graham) is early in his career and desperate to be admitted into the Royal Society. He needs the approval of the far more successful Robert Hooke (Brandon Thomas) — known for Hooke’s Law of physics, inventing meteorology and an early version of the telephone, and for blowing up the lungs of at least 12 dogs. The problem is that Newton’s experiments are at odds with Hooke’s on the subject of light, so they devise a final experiment that could physically blind them as they’re blinded by their own self-perceived genius.
Hnath’s portrayal of this fictional meeting between Newton and Hooke at a pivotal moment in the 1880s draws in Newton’s potential fiancée, Catherine (Laura Vincent), and an unlucky man named Sam (Francis Melling) suffering from the plague. A narrator (also played by Melling,) literally outlines the facts on the walls of Belanger’s wood-panelled set.
The chalk from these notes seems to settle on the entirety of Graham, who embodies Newton as described by the narrator: an old man in a young man’s body. Graham seems an actor beyond his years, with a memorable face that fits the description — and that’s seeing beyond the white hair spray and baggy clothes that Belanger dresses him in.