SAN JOSE -- Ron Campbell is a magnetic presence in "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe."
The veteran Bay Area actor -- who has excelled in roles from Shakespeare to Cirque du Soleil -- gives a dazzling performance as the visionary American scientist and inventor in D.W. Jacobs' funny, luminous and occasionally sobering one-man play, which opened Wednesday under Jacobs' direction in a new San Jose Repertory Theatre production.
Much of its success is due to Campbell, who starred in the show's San Francisco premiere in 2000. He revives the role here with consummate flair, blazing through the two-hour, 30-minute performance while outlining the wide-ranging discoveries and brilliant world view that led Marshall McLuhan to call Fuller "the Leonardo da Vinci of our time."
The adage says that great minds think alike. But Fuller, who died in 1983 at age 88, charted his own path. An original thinker, he dispensed with conventional wisdom and looked for the universe's own pure truths. By some measures, he was a failure: Twice expelled from Harvard, he never obtained a college degree, but his inventions, from the Dymaxion car to a waterless toilet, continue to resonate with potential.
Jacobs, drawing on lectures Fuller gave in the 1960s, structures the play as a kind of memoir, blending the scientist's talks with personal episodes. From the earliest scenes in his New England childhood, it's clear that the nearsighted "Bucky" is different. When a teacher distributes pipe cleaners and marshmallows to the class, the other kids make houses; Bucky instinctively forms triangles, the building blocks he would one day employ in his greatest invention, the geodesic dome.
Genius is the thread running through this captivating bio-drama, and in Campbell's vibrant, kinetic performance the intensity never flags. After a stint in the Navy, Fuller forges ahead: "I resolved to do my own thinking," he says, "to see what the individual can produce on behalf of his fellow man." The world -- which he calls "Spaceship Earth" -- is his personal laboratory, and each new discovery a source of joy. If Fuller never quite got his due, he certainly made an impression; in one scene, when he meets Albert Einstein, the 20th century's most celebrated physicist expresses his admiration.
It's hard to imagine anyone but Campbell playing the part. Looking quintessentially nerdy in a black suit and tie, his thick, black-frame glasses strapped to his head (the costumes are by Shannon Sigman), he roams the stage, occasionally coming into the audience to demonstrate a theory.
He's a master of timing, stopping mid-thought to shape a phrase with exquisite precision, or pausing with a bemused look on his face to appreciate the implications of what he's just said. Mostly, though, he's fervent, driven to explain and enlighten; at times, he's nearly quivering with the need to make a salient point.
Campbell is also a natural comedian, able to get laughs while leading the audience in a singalong ("Come Home to a Dome," to the tune of "Home on the Range"), demonstrating vector equilibrium to "I Got Rhythm" or trying to convince us that there's no such thing as up or down.
Yet "R. Buckminster Fuller" gives a rounded picture of its subject, and the scientist's moments of mourning -- at the death of his first child, or in reaction to the devastation of war -- shade Campbell's performance with affecting depth.
Jacobs' staging surrounds the actor with an enveloping production. David Lee Cuthbert's set, framed by arches to suggest the interior of a dome, includes a worktable, Victrola, blackboard and projector. Cuthbert's lighting conjures otherworldly enchantment; Luis Perez's sound designs add an atmospheric layer. Jim Findlay's video projections display drawings, family photos, formulas and news clips.
Still, it's Campbell who shines most brightly. Watching his performance, one can only marvel at Fuller's vision. He wasn't just ahead of his time. He was one of a kind.
Written and directed by D.W. Jacobs
Produced by San Jose Rep
Through: Feb. 23
Where: 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $29-$74; www.sjrep.com, 408-367-7255