The dozen characters who have been slumbering inside Lily Tomlin for the last 15 years leapt to life Monday night without the slightest pause for a yawn or a stretch - like the audience at the end of Tomlin's performance of "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe."
Bag-lady Trudy, Agnus Angst the punk, sensitive Lyn and the others came out of Tomlin as genies from a bottle, presenting magical possibilities to the sold-out crowd at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
To be fair, Tomlin and her life partner and collaborator, writer Jane Wagner, are co-owners of the magic bottle. But Tomlin gets all the credit, as the "Nashville" and "All of Me" actress graciously pointed out in a recent interview.
Monday we saw why.
Tomlin won a Best Actress Tony Award for "The Search" in 1986, when she was 47. At 61, her performance remains virtuosic, bordering on heroic, as she switches from one character to the next with the speed and clarity of a light going on and off. She captures the script's symphonic grandness without sacrificing the confessional closeness that goes with being a solo performer.
Tomlin, Wagner and the technical crew will be taking this production of "The Search" back to Broadway in the winter. They decided to reprise the show when Tomlin performed parts at a college workshop last year and students connected with the characters.
With its Samadhi flotation tank and geodesic dome home, "The Search" is dated. But it's not irrelevant.
From character to side-splitting character, Tomlin - with a profound understanding and affection for Wagner's profound and affectionate text - uses the humor to ease open the wounds of humanity, which she fingers gently as a motherly warning.
Wagner's words still apply. Take, for example, the mantra of the show's second half: "It's hard to be politically conscious and upwardly mobile at the same time." Replace "politically conscious" with "WTO" and "upwardly mobile" with "dot.com" and it's Seattle in a fleece-coated, SUV-driving nutshell.
There are some changes to "The Search." Minor additions to the script, like references to laptop computers, school violence and the new century, don't reshape the nugget of the show.
Updated effects, by set designer Klara Zieglerova, lighting designer Ken Billington and sound designer Mark Bennett, make this new "Search" a tightly wound, dazzlingly impressive spectacle.
Truly extraordinary is the lack of sets and costumes, and how much you don't notice. Tomlin wears a plain dark outfit, and the set consists largely of two chairs, a small staircase going nowhere and a few benches. In addition to the finer points of her characterization, Tomlin's mime technique is vivid and outstanding.
Could Tomlin possibly be 61? Her energy looks boundless. Her own wild skipping and hopping during the curtain calls most resembled Agnus, the youngest character in the show at 15.
She hoped critics would say now, as they did when she was 25 and then 45, that she's a performer in her prime. Closer to the truth, and something most fans have known since they saw Ernestine the phone operator on "Laugh-In," is that Lily Tomlin is a prime performer at any age.