'Bell' at NatGeo: the Inventor Is in Town for a Week

Rick Foucheux brings Alexander Graham Bell to life in the one-man play, "Bell."
Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
Rick Foucheux brings Alexander Graham Bell to life in the one-man play, "Bell."

Alexander Graham Bell is back at the National Geographic Society this week, and you have a chance to meet him -- as dramatized by Rick Foucheux in "Bell," presented at National Geographic Live! on 17th Street, NW.

The one-man play, written by Jim Lehrer of the "PBS NewsHour" and directed by Jeremy Skidmore, is the first-ever theater production by the National Geographic and in honor of its 125th anniversary. It begins as Bell awakes from a nap and talks about his beloved wife Mabel Hubbard Bell, daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, who founded the society. Bell (1847-1922) was president of the non-profit exploration and science institution for a few years at the turn of the last century.

The great inventor speaks directly to the audience, moving back and forth between his day and ours. He asks us to hold up our smart phones. Yes, he is responsible for that, known as he is for being "the telephone man," he tells us. Parts of the device also owe thanks to Thomas Alva Edison with his work on lights bulbs, phonographs and electronics, he adds. Bell mentions his erstwhile colleague Edison quite a few times during the performance.

Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Foucheux distills the life of the famous Bell with authority and humor for at least 80 minutes through Lehrer's words to that of a man, just like anyone else, frustrated by events or rivals.

When President James Garfield lay wounded on a white House bed in 1881 after being shot at a downtown Washington, D.C., train station, Bell tried to help find the bullet in the president's body with a metal detector -- to no effect, stymied by metal coils in the mattress, Bell laments.

Even the stage displays Bell's personality: a desk cluttered devices and designs, a back wall postered with sheets of his drawn-up designs. Indeed, Bell says his definition of genius is the opposite of Edison's, who said it is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Tellingly, for Bell, it is 99 percent inspiration.

We may have known that Bell's wife was deaf and that he worked in vocal physiology like his father, who also had a house on 35th Street in Georgetown, across the street from the Volta Bureau, the site of one of Bell's laboratories in D.C. Bell's bureau and the street, Volta Place, derive their names from the Volta Prize which France awarded to Bell in 1880.

One prize which Bell never got was to be on the cover of the National Geographic Magazine. During the play, he holds up an open, life-size version of the magazine's famous yellow frame in front of himself as if to right that wrong.

Who knew about Bell's airplane, the Silver Dart, flying in New York and then in Nova Scotia? How about that he loved ice cream too much and died from diabetes?

There is, of course, more to know about Bell. So, don't call, don't text . . . just go. In fact, you have only six evenings to see "Bell." Take the kids, too. As with anything created by the Geographic, you will learn something new.

"Bell" runs through Sept. 21 at the National Geographic Society’s Grosvenor Auditorium, 1600 M St., NW. Call 202-857-7700, or visit nglive.org/bell.

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Thu, 21 Aug 2014 08:07:13 -0400

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