Reluctantly, your friend John tells you a secret: He's actually a 14,000-year-old caveman. He wasn't preserved in ice. He didn't travel through time. He just kicked around, wandering from glacier to fertile crescent to Renaissance city, forever looking 35. He met Christopher Columbus. He dined with religious heroes. He even faked death, just to make a clean break and start anew.
Would you believe your good friend? Now playing at South Park Theatre, The Man From Earth, by Jerome Bixby, asks just such an insane question. But the late Bixby, a veteran writer for Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, makes the prospect seem reasonable. At heart, Man is a story of faith — whether scientific minds can accept a story that sounds absurd, given credible evidence. John's friends are all college faculty, of many disciplines. They listen, debate and decide. And like any good Twilight Zone episode, the story ends with a humanist twist.
South Park has taken an incredible gamble with Man, but the heady script more than pays off. John's autobiography is so wondrous and imaginative, we can't help but root for him. Greg Caridi plays John with calm earnestness, like an old man recounting his childhood years. John's unspoken secret is that he's lonely, and no matter what people hear or believe, he might live another 14 millennia, by which point his friends will be recycled nitrogen.
Man is a little too slow and somber for its own good, but director Jena Oberg has assembled a superb community cast, and they all deliberate with authority. Like other faith stories (Harvey, The Boy Who Could Fly), the idea is so enchanting that we yearn to ask John our own questions. Man is essentially a monologue with ensemble interjections, but tension builds gradually. After all, if John is joking, he's taken the hoax too far. If he's serious, maybe he's less than sane.
It should be noted that Man started as a low-budget 2007 movie. (Bixby wrote the script; the theatrical adaptation is by Richard Schenkman.) Don't trifle with it, at least not at first. South Park's production is better. Like that 14,000-year-old Cro-Magnon, this Man is truly alive.