Katie Vaughn, Madison Magazine
Photo by Nick Berard
Oftentimes, when we think about technological breakthroughs, we focus our attention on the science or the business sides—how exciting they are or how the new gadget will change our daily lives. But we forget about the human element.
Forward Theater Company’s latest production, The Farnsworth Invention, is fascinating because it centers on the two men behind one of history’s greatest innovations—the television.
The play, by screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin of The Social Network, The American President and The West Wing, is presented in collaboration with the UW Department of Theater and Drama and University Theatre and runs through November 20 at Overture Center.
The two men at the core of the invention—and the controversy over who actually came up with it first—serve as lead characters as well as narrators. From the first time they step on stage, the audience knows who they are and quickly and smoothly learns details of their backgrounds.
David Sarnoff is the ambitious, laser-focused head of RCA. He’s a gifted mind and a Russian immigrant who as a child quickly taught himself English and shook off his accent. Michael Huftile plays Sarnoff flawlessly, with slicked hair, an expensive suit and the confidence that rich, successful men seem to innately have.
Philo Farnsworth is an Idaho farm boy and clearly a genius, a fact evidenced a scene in which as a child (played by the utterly charming Alistair Sewell) he presents his idea for television to his science teacher. Actor Nicholas Harazin makes the adult Philo sincere, earnest and likable.
What’s interesting is that these narrators address the audience and each other from a point in time after the television has been invented—and following the accusations, lawsuits and fallout over who deserves credit. Sarnoff and Farnsworth are bitter, argumentative and desperate to tell their sides of the story.
And their stories play out dynamically and epically, with sixteen actors taking on more than seventy roles and director Jennifer Uphoff Gray pacing the action at an assertive clip and spreading it out across every inch of the stage.
We see Philo secure funding against all odds to build his vision, and put together a team and a lab in San Francisco. We watch Sarnoff lead his corporation through the Great Depression and other national-scale ups and downs. We witness both men grow desperate—professionally and personally—as they strive to be recognized as the one responsible for the invention.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say the play ends on a beautiful note, a reminder of the way television ultimately transcended these two visionaries at the heart of creating it.
So whether you’re interested in history, technology or simply the human side to an innovation that truly changed the world, tune in to this complex and compelling story. It just might alter the way you look at the ubiquitous TV set—or technological advances emerging today.