Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Two Degrees
Tesseract Theatre Company
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Nonsense and Beauty

Taylor Gruenloh and Donna M. Parrone
Photo by Brittanie Gunn
The very American dispute over climate change gets personal in Tira Palmquist's 2017 play Two Degrees, in which the personal and political clash like hot and cold fronts before a thunderstorm. A climate scientist goes to testify before Congress, only to find that lobbyists for the extraction industries are already there making her job nearly impossible.

Nearly, but not completely, impossible.

The ice core sampling researcher, played by Donna M. Parrone, finds herself in a deep-dive of Washington, D.C. in this smooth, dynamic 90-minute production at Tesseract Theatre Company. The brutal gamesmanship, the politics-makes-strange-bedfellows intimacies, and even the fumbling for a cri de coeur are all fully explored by director Brittanie Gunn. Looming background projections on the .Zack stage show various images: two almost identical glowing photos for each scene. But one of these giant pictures is always slightly "zoomed in," to create a faint sense of double-vision, like an antique stereoscope.

That new perception of depth is troubling for the scientist, and for us. Emma Phelps (the always smart and passionate Ms. Parrone) must explain the dangers of climate change, to prepare a presentation on ice core sampling before a congressional committee. But at the same time, she fights personal demons rising up from her past, which remind her of how alienated she ha become from the present. Remember Alvin Toffler's 1970 best-selling book "Future Shock"? Two Degrees has that same relentless sense of change, both personal and societal. Yet, as drama goes, it's a little like being murdered, over and over.

What's not new is the consensus of climate scientists: that a two degree global temperature rise above average on the Celsius scale (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), kicked off by man-made hydrocarbon emissions, will be the breaking point for runaway climate change. Our planet's polar ice regions will disappear, and rising sea levels will displace billions of people, in addition to the droughts and floods we're already seeing now. Despite these widely accepted predictions, Dr. Phelps (and that name suddenly reminds us of the old TV show, "Mission: Impossible") must clash with her "status quo" opponents in hearings over the ice cores she's drawn up from the picturesque glaciers of Greenland.

Carmen Garcia is powerful and ingratiating as a U.S. senator who has called Phelps to testify; and Taylor Gruenloh is perfect as an amorous young man she meets in a hotel bar. Sherard Curry is outstanding in three roles, which deserves some explanation: in addition to playing Dr. Phelps' husband, his other two characters are distinctly different but remind her, jarringly, of him. This heightens the sense of disjointedness.

Playwright Palmquist doesn't spend any time explaining that we're all likely to feel like strangers in a strange land ourselves, ten or twenty years from now, if man-made hydrocarbons can't be reduced. She uses Dr. Phelps as a symbol of that, as a woman who is already thrust into a mad new world: suffering her own deluges of emotion, and scorching waves of desire, which will be explained later in the story. Side by side with that, in the present, her learning curve to raise a new call over the climate crisis is as steep as a hockey stick. But she scrambles up, demons and all, to head off shared disaster.

It's all so immediate and fully realized that you'll be surprised it doesn't feel like another thinly disguised screenplay grudgingly plopped on stage. It's just a very good newer play that accomplishes something impressive, combining very fine actors and very interesting storytelling techniques.

Two Degrees, through March 17, 2019, at Tesseract Theatre Company, the .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust Ave., just west of Compton Avenue, St. Louis MO. There is ample lighted parking. For more information, visit

Cast of Characters
Emma Phelps: Donna M. Parrone
Clay Simpson: Taylor Gruenloh
Jeffrey/Wilson/Malik: Sherard Curry
Louise Allen: Carmen Garcia

Production Staff
Director: Brittanie Gunn
Stage Manager: Michelle Henley
Scenic Design: Brittanie Gunn, Katie Palazzola
Lighting Design: Michael Gasparich
Sound Design: Mark Kelley
Projection Design: Taylor Gruenloh
Board Operator: Robert Oberdieck
Production Assistant, Marketing Director: Robert Oberdieck