CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Buckminster Fuller — the influential thinker and futurist — is known around the world for his big ideas and his inventions, including the curious-looking but structurally efficient geodesic dome. But now the Massachusetts native is coming home, thanks to a new one-man production at the American Repertory Theater.
The play is called “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.” Writer and director D.W. Jacobs spent five years researching and writing it before its San Diego premiere in 2000. A decade later, he said, staging Bucky’s story in Cambridge is another matter.
“It’s quite disarming, actually, to bring him back home after thinking about this place for so long,” Jacobs admitted.
Fuller was born in Milton in 1895. He flunked out of Harvard not once, but twice. As a kid he swam at the beach in Marblehead. These are just a few of the things we learn through Jacobs’ play. It’s a vast, kind of quirky, biography — acted out on stage.
“Why are we here?” Fuller asks as he paces back and forth. He’s being played by veteran Boston actor Thomas Derrah, who wears the thinker’s signature three-piece suit, bow tie and thick, black-rimmed glasses. We meet Bucky the architect, the engineer, the utopian philosopher, the little kid who discovers the integrity of triangles, the man who nearly committed suicide in his early 30s, the loving father and husband.
“Oh, I courted her, through thick and thin, for two years,” the stage Fuller recalls. The entire work is delivered as an intimate sort of lecture to the audience.
“Now everything that’s going on between you and I here in this room, you see, this is metaphysical. Understanding is utterly metaphysical…”
Fuller also tells stories about his life in the Boston area. References to New England are seeded throughout the play.
“He had a very strong feeling about his roots,” said Allegra Snyder, Bucky’s daughter. As he was writing the play Jacobs consulted with her and other members of the Fuller family. At first, Allegra admitted, she was wary.
“It certainly was a strange thought to consider seeing somebody else being your father on stage,” she said on the phone from her home in California. Now she’s used to it. The play’s been performed dozens of times in other cities. Allegra’s seen six productions — meaning six Buckys — so far, and says Jacobs’ script gets her dad right.
“It very much gives a sense of his many dimensions,” she said, before continuing with a knowing giggle, “my father was at one level always a surprise.”
ART actor Derrah has been learning that firsthand. “You can’t pin him down, he’s not one thing, he’s not just that black suit,” he said before a recent rehearsal at the ART “I was surprised the first time I was actually inside the script and he describes this experience where he found himself in Chicago with his feet not touching the ground inside a shimmering kind of sphere. It was this whole sort of mystical experience that happened to this person, it’s just surprising.”
It’s been mentally exhausting for the actor to wrap his head around Bucky’s mind-bending, often highly technical concepts — and then memorize all those lines!
“This is a tough role,” Derrah said. “It’s a 66-page monologue.”
And while Bucky’s philosophies can sometimes seem heady or esoteric, Derrah has a funny story that shows how the futurist’s legacy still carries on and can be found all around us today. One recent night, after studying Bucky, Derrah flipped on the TV looking for something kind of mindless. He stopped on Paula Abdul’s show, “Live to Dance,” and the actor couldn’t believe what he saw on stage.
“They had constructed this giant geodesic dome, it was huge, and it was called their special ‘dance dome’,” he said, laughing. “And I thought, ‘I can’t get away from this guy!’ ”
In truth Derrah has grown very fond of Bucky, who’s heart was huge and who firmly believed in our ability to reinvent ourselves and the world around us. Derrah feels a sense of responsibility playing Fuller, and says doing this show in Cambridge definitely feels like a homecoming.
“This play’s been done in Oregon, it’s been done in Washington, D.C., in Seattle and various places in Chicago, but it hasn’t been here,” he said. “And I think this audience, this group of people, it’s his home. And he says — one of my favorite lines, is, you know — ‘I really love coming home.’ ”
The ART is on the corner of Brattle and Hilliard Streets in Cambridge. Buckminster Fuller’s grandparents lived on Hilliard, just down the way. Bucky, who died in 1983, is buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery — right next to his beloved wife — about two miles from the theater.