‘Power & Light’ shows clash of genius between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla
Eric Keitel and Bailey Castle / John Strysik

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A new play by John Strysik, now receiving its world premiere production, reveals on a live stage the intense competition between two business models, two intensely proud and brilliant inventors, and implicitly, two economic approaches toward lighting and powering society.

It’s still debatable whether or not both Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla were immigrants to the United States, contributing their talents and imagination to our prosperity. There’s no question about the latter, born in Serbia and still with a strong accent in his English until his dying day. But over the years Mexican claims have become more and more insistent, though perhaps not more convincing, that Edison, with a distinctly Hispanic middle name, was born in the town of Sombrerete, Zacatecas. In any case, despite my expectation that the issue might arise in the play, it doesn’t, and since it’s still such a dubious assertion, there was undoubtedly no room for it.

What the play does deal with, on a level of detail that to this untutored scientific mind often felt overwhelming, was the evolution of electricity from direct current to alternating current, and the many applications to which electrical power has been put. Both men were idealists in their own way, professing their sole interest as the betterment of humanity.

Yet a field like this, which had its false starts and dead ends like other ventures, required substantial capital to develop new technology, and where would this new capital come from? Easy answer: From the new capitalists! And do they seek social betterment? Yes, but only if they can make a profit from it!

David Hunt Stafford /John Strysik

Thus, men and women like J.P. Morgan and his daughter Anne Morgan, Alice Vanderbilt, and George Westinghouse also make more than cameo appearances. During the historical span covered in the play, 1884 to 1943, we see how great progress produces goods and utilities that the general public soon learned to take for granted, and at the same time amassed fortunes, or expanded the already great fortunes, of the Robber Baron class. “I have no intention of providing free energy to the world,” J.P. states.

As one of you wags out there might crack, So, what else is new?

Well, one thing that’s new is the way a certain South African immigrant, aiming to become a new American Robber Baron, adopted the name Tesla for a futuristic automobile (that also, not unexpectedly, has shown its false starts and dead ends).

Early on in the play, we follow a thread that itself illustrates the complexity, not to mention the moral implications, of progress. Reformers around the turn of the 20th century were troubled that Death Row criminals were being executed by hanging or by firing squads. Couldn’t the new science of electricity be harnessed to make it all quicker, easier, and more humane? One painless zap and it’s over? And thus was born the electric chair, which is but one of the new technical wonders the production features, alongside dynamos, meters, magnetic fields, induction motors, electrical energy from the airwaves, auras of light, wireless torches, transmitter towers, and more.

Even as Edison’s electric lights became ever more sophisticated—and needless to say, have evolved vertiginously since—Nikola Tesla was obsessed with unwired energy, inspired by lightning, trying to figure out how to convert it into usable power. The play tracks more than half a century of inspiration and invention as we come to understand some of the intellectual processes that eventually took the world to the technological landscape we know today.

In this largely man’s world, we meet some of the women behind the men—Djuka Tesla, the inventor’s mother, and Anne Morgan, J.P.’s daughter, who is keen on Nikola and urges her daddy to invest in him (both played by Bailey Castle); and Mina Edison, wife, and Alice Vanderbilt (both played by Mandy Fason). Anne Morgan (1873-1952) is quite a fascinating character in her own right, a philanthropist, advocate for women, and social reformer. Her dialogue in the play suggests a level of socialist consciousness.

Tesla (Eric Keitel) seems to have been a rather odd duck, totally engrossed in his fertile mind’s visionary obsessions of solar power and thinking machines the size of a wallet, with little time for intimate human relationships. Anne Morgan is clearly in love with him, hanging on him adoringly, but he barely notices, except to acknowledge her influence on the financing he gets from her father. He comes across as perhaps neurodivergent, handwashing excessively. Neither he nor Anne ever married.

Edison (David Hunt Stafford) is more of a family man—in fact, after his first wife died young, already the mother of three of his children, he married again and had three more. Edison also felt at somewhat of a social remove, partly out of his unrelenting fascination with solving more of the world’s problems through electricity, and perhaps even more out of his lifelong hearing loss, referred to often in the play. As he says to the body of his just deceased first wife, he gave her everything but himself.

Jeff G. Rack, often credited in my enthusiastic reviews of Theatre 40 plays for his stage designs, here is credited not only with the set but also as director. Costume designer Michael Mullen has performed wonders, especially with the ladies’ outfits, in conveying both class and period. Projections by Gabriel Griego are magnificent, and much work obviously went into all the live onstage flashing and flickering gizmos that populate almost every scene. It’s technically about the most advanced production I’ve seen at this company.

I wonder if the enormous scope encompassed by Power & Light works for it or against it. We have 13 named characters, two acts with many short scenes, all these costume changes, all this electrical wizardry spanning a timeframe of 59 years, and a host of advancing intellectual concepts to try and grasp in a few fleet moments. It’s a spectacle! Epic!

But perhaps too much for its own good. Human relationships, and the shifts and contortions they go through, are usually what we look for in theater, and these are presented almost as an afterthought, as though they were not of primary interest to the playwright. So the pageant of industry parades before us, but after a while it becomes harder and harder to care about these real people.

In the meantime, I kept thinking, that utilities—electricity, gas, water, phone, internet—continue to be privately owned, for the most part, in America, and constitute a line item on every family budget. Improvements are often deferred because they don’t appear to be cost-effective when the utility is still committed to paying dividends to its shareholders. Even though downed power lines, blackouts, failing dams, rotting lead pipes, and pollution, all make for colossal disaster and danger at the public’s expense with, usually, no corporate liability. This is the world we have inherited from the Westinghouses, the Edisons, and from their investors and owners. As a rule, the few places where such utilities are municipally owned (as water and power are in Los Angeles, for example) these tend to be less victimized by disaster because constant upgrading is part of their civic charge.

Mandy Fason / Eric Keitel

Also in the cast are Warren Davis as Edison’s loyal Irish immigrant assistant Charles Batchelor, John Combs in the dual roles of J.P. Morgan and a Foreman, Richard Large as George Westinghouse and a Radio Man, and Kurtis Bedford as George Scherff and Rourke Cockran. On the crew side, we also have Derrick McDaniel as lighting designer, Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski as sound designer, Judi Lewin on hair, wigs, and makeup, Don Solosan as stage manager, and Ernest McDaniel and Kurtis Bedford on props (who truly deserve a heap of props!).

Despite impassioned, believable acting and a fantastic production, given the modest size of this company and its stage, the unwieldiness of the play itself is its biggest problem. But I could see folks attending and not minding this feature—it might be fun in a roller-coaster kind of way. I imagine some others coming away wondering what the utilities sector of the economy might look like under socialism, where investor profit is not the purpose. Perhaps Edison’s motto, introduced early in the play, might be something for all of us to remember: Perseverantia omnia vincit—perseverance conquers all.

Power & Light plays at Theater 40 through April 30, with 19 performances irregularly scheduled throughout the week (it runs in repertory with another play, Into the Breeches). The company’s Mary Levin Cutler Theatre is located on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills 90212. Free parking is available in the parking lot beneath the theater; to access parking enter through the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives. For tickets call (310) 364-3606 or visit the company website.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.