What is the price of truth? Paul Grellong’s provocative drama “Power of Sail,” astutely directed by Weyni Mengesha, weaves an increasingly tangled web of perspectives and motivations surrounding race. Set in the hallowed halls of Harvard, the play centers on the academic pursuit of truth and the lies upon which it may depend. A stellar cast, crisp pacing and innovative set design make “Power of Sail” a must-see theatre experience.
Anchoring the production is the exceptional Bryan Cranston as Harvard history professor Charles Nichols. Cranston is so naturally fluid that we feel Nichols’ every emotion—from righteous vehemence to uncertainty and fear—even if we don’t know what it’s like to be a highly educated, privileged white male, somewhat threatened by the turning of time’s tide.
Riding the crest of that new wave is Baxter Forrest, played with nuance and dexterity by Brandon Scott. A former student of Nichols,’ Baxter is both academically accomplished and adept at navigating the newer media waters of political-opinion news programs and podcasting. Meanwhile, Nichols is proud of the print publication of his newest hefty tome and seems adrift in how to compete with his younger colleague Jamila, who, though unseen, is presumably Black, as is Baxter.
Within this milieu, Nichols drops a bombshell by inviting a known white supremacist to speak on campus—which he defends as free-speech debate—causing vocal student protests and a visit by his dean Amy Katz (Amy Brenneman). Brenneman plays Amy with cool dispassion, a foil to Nichols’ heated rationalizing of his decision, she seemingly powerless to stop him.
Soon entering the fray are graduate students Maggie Rosen (Tedra Millan), who is Jewish, and white male Lucas Poole (Seth Numrich, who embodies his character’s disarming obsequiousness), each bringing their own views and underlying motivations. At stake for Lucas is winning a prestigious fellowship from Nichols, notably one previously bestowed upon Baxter.
When events reach an explosive and tragic climax, the play works backward to reveal the lengths—mostly in the form of deceptions—each character is willing to go in pursuit of their own truths. The backstory structure comes off seamlessly, assisted by a revolving set (designed by Rachel Myers, lighting by Lap Chi Chu) that rotates to present new scenes, with characters walking in the opposite direction to suggest a backward flow of time.
With each revelation, we realize that not only is the truth not what it seems (and maybe never is), but the unseemly web of falsehoods spun among the characters is the real truth. No one is left unblemished, except perhaps Baxter, who plays by the rules but stands his ground in maintaining personal integrity—even if it means pushing away his mentor Nichols in a time of need.
The title words, “power of sail,” are from a nautical rule Nichols quotes on how boats powered by motor must give right-of-way to those powered by sail. It’s unclear exactly how that metaphor applies except in terms of power itself, which ebbs and flows in the play across age, race, who is “right” and who is “wrong.” The audience is swayed back and forth under the play’s mesmerizing currents, aided by music and sound subtly designed by Jonathan Snipes.
As a gripping theatre experience, “Power of Sail” is thus not to be missed. Its compelling ensemble cast also includes Donna Simone Johnson as a sharp Black female FBI agent interviewing Nichols who can barely contain her anger—but does—and Hugo Armstrong as the simple bartender of a seedy bar favored by Nichols and Lucas, where the play resolves in the visual metaphor of a small sailboat.
Ships may be the objective correlative of power in the play, like the larger model in Nichols’ Harvard office, sails billowing with words spoken and unspoken—lies we tell ourselves and each other to justify our own truths.
“Power of Sail” continues at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through March 20, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $149 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing during performances are required.