Theatre Horizon is opening its season with William Finn and James Lapine’s semi-autobiographical “A New Brain.” The heartfelt musical is based on actual events after a children’s television composer, Gordon Michael Schwinn, is diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain condition. He reexamines his life and legacy with help from his family and the occasional hallucination.
Barrymore Award-winning actor and Lansdale native Steve Pacek plays Gordon in the production. He said he was able to draw on his own life experiences to relate to the character.
“The story is William Finn’s semi-autobiographical tale,” Pacek said. “I came to know the piece when I was in high school when it was at Lincoln Center in New York City. A friend of mine that I did the shows with in high school, her mom had a similar condition. It was so weird to have a similar parallel in my own life. That’s how I relate. That was my in to the piece. I’ve had experiences in my life that I’ve had to deal with death when it hits a little too close to home, and the questions and fears that brings up. That’s a large part of my character’s journey."
Even though the show deals with some emotionally taxing subjects, Pacek said it also has a lot of laughs.
“In all of Finn’s shows, he has a very active sense of humor; whether that is something that he’s developed over the years to deflect some of the pain that he has gone through is possible,” he noted. “It really does balance the heaviness of the story of the journey that he’s on. The central characters in it — Gordon and his mother and his boyfriend — if you look at it from outside the knowledge of the story as a whole, you’d think these people are being nasty to each other. But it’s actually just their dry, sarcastic sense of humor with each other. They’re all there to help each other get through this very hard time and that’s the sense of humor that they have latched onto. They know that works despite all of the fear they are feeling.”
Pacek says he has taken the show’s message of being mindful of how we choose to spend the time we are given to heart — and hopefully audiences will too.
“Most of the show is the journey in the hospital,” Pacek said. “It’s really only the last scene that he knows he’s in the upward path and that’s the one that hits home. It brings the whole journey to resolution. And it is really powerful. During the course of the show, this family unit is around him and it seems that he chooses work over them a lot. Once he has that confidence that he’s going to make it through this ordeal, I think that’s the first thing that he reexamines, that he chooses to do differently: to actually enjoy time with those you love that are around you instead of always making yourself busy and distracting yourself. I think that message is really clear and I hope people try to find parallels in their own lives.”
Theatre Horizon presents “A New Brain” through Nov. 6, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. For more information or tickets, call 610-283-2230 or visit www.theatrehorizon.org.