The conversation is intense but never boring in Tim Blake Nelson’s drama, “Socrates,” which is getting a splendid staging under the direction of Doug Hughes at the Public Theater. Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal of the ancient philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC) is a highlight of the season as he makes the influential figure of ancient Greece come vividly alive.
But after Stuhlbarg gives us a convincing, living portrait, there is the climactic death scene, in which Socrates is convicted, condemned, and is compelled to drink hemlock, a poison which sends him into a painful death. Stuhbarge makes the most of dying, convincingly drawing out the philosopher’s demise in a scene that many an actor might envy.
What Nelson achieves in his play is a depiction of both the personality and the wit of Socrates, which includes making him a pain to many Athenians who resent his persistent questioning of various aspects of life and always seeking elusive truth. He is very stubborn in his beliefs and refuses an opportunity to draw a sentence other than death by knuckling under or even by seizing the opportunity to escape. As depicted in this drama, he is making himself a martyr in a fight for freedom to explore the questions posed in life.
The story is broadly presented as a flashback with Plato, a student of Socrates, impressively played by Teagle F. Bougere, telling a boy (Niall Cunningham) assigned to his care about his mentor. The drama unfolds through that perspective. We see Socrates among his companions joshing around, including lots of talk about sex with young boys. But more importantly, there is much conversation about life in Athens in the wake of the loss in war with Sparta.
The constant questioning by Socrates becomes irksome to many in Athens, but the playwright dotes on the philosophical dialogues so that we can both appreciate the wit of Socrates, as well as how he becomes a thorn to those with differ with his perceptions, ideas and incessant intellectual needling.
As the life of Socrates is increasingly at risk, he orders Plato not to take his ideas and interpret them to others after he is gone. Plato does promise, but then acknowledges before the audience that he broke the rule. (There are no writings by Socrates, only reports about his thoughts, particularly by Plato.)
In a dramatic scene after Socrates has been condemned, there is an emotional confrontation between Socrates and his wife, Xanthippe, who pleads with him to avoid dying and leaving her and their sons alone by taking one of the outs available to him. Miriam A. Hyman is movingly passionate in the her role, but an angry Socrates orders her taken away.
The pleasure offered an audience is to be privy to an avalanche of discussion about ideas not often found in the theater these days. Add to that the dynamic acting by Stuhlbarge and others, plus the price we see Socrates paying, and you have powerful theater.
All of this is played out within a remarkable set design by Scott Pask . Walls feature in ancient Greek the funeral oration for Socrates given by Pericles. The set looms as a major contribution to the atmosphere of the drama and its aura of authenticity. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed April 17, 2019.