Play: “Dark Matters”
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: May 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org
Story: Michael Cleary, his wife Bridget and teenage son Jeremy have left their helter-skelter existence in Washington, D.C. for the more bucolic atmosphere of a small town in the mountains of Virginia. Michael is a minor novelist who pays the bills by driving a milk truck, while Bridget has penned a work or two about people who claim to have seen extra-terrestrial beings. Their literary lives are reflected in the towering bookshelves crammed with tomes in their modest country home.
Amateur astronomer Bridget’s nocturnal hobby of wandering off into the fields to check out the stars turns frightening one night, though, when she fails to return. Michael contacts the local sheriff, Benjamin Egan, who promptly launches a search for her. Egan soon learns that Bridget was known to frequent a local bar where a waitress saw her spend a lot of time with truckers, sometimes leaving for a nearby motel. Michael doesn’t want to hear any of this, but when Bridget shows up a couple of nights later with tales of journeys with extraterrestrials through time portals, he becomes increasingly suspicious.
With a little dark history of his own, and with some background secrets about Bridget found by Jeremy in her private journals, doubts between the Clearys are compounded. Sheriff Egan continues to ask uncomfortable questions and even appears to act a bit strange himself, exacerbating tension that is only heightened when Bridget reveals that the aliens plan to abduct Jeremy within two days. Is she lying or crazy or actually warning of impending danger?
Highlights: Stray Dog annually mounts a Studio Workshop Production for actors, directors, playwrights and designers who seek to hone their craft. This year’s selection, proposed by Justin Been, is this science-fiction thriller penned by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who writes for Marvel Comics as well as HBO’s “Big Love” series and most recently has been tapped to overhaul the script for the long-awaited premiere of the Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
Aguirre-Sacasa has an obvious love for fantasy and science fiction and also has a knack for plot construction in his storytelling. All of that helps audience members who “want to believe,” to quote top-notch alien investigator Fox Mulder of “The X Files.” The playwright’s juicy script gives director Been and his cast some storyline morsels to chew upon in the St. Louis premiere of a work that opened in New York in 2006.
Been’s fabulously eerie sound design coupled with his set filled with the clutter of the Clearys’ lives, which underscores their confused psyches, provide an appropriate background for this spooky story. That set is well complemented with Tyler Duenow’s subtle lighting, some suitably unkempt props courtesy of Gary Bell and Bell’s straightforward costuming for the characters, all of whom appear normal and subdued at first blush.
Other Info: While Been gets the right look and appearance for this presentation, he falters as a director by following an overly sluggish pace. There simply is too much time too often between delivery of lines by various characters to maintain maximum effect. Less pondering and more action would make a better recipe for intrigue. A story that blends the supernatural with unsavory human frailties works best if it is presented briskly and forcefully to avoid circumspection of plot holes, such as Tracy Letts’ thriller, “Bug,” which keeps patrons guessing even at its conclusion.
Been’s cast delivers solid performances, with the three ‘adult’ players each shading his or her character effectively enough to cast doubts on their individual veracity. Sarah Cannon and David Wassilak show sufficient mistrust between Bridget and Michael to underline the strain in their marriage. Cannon breathes both hysteria and uncertainty into Bridget’s character to underscore her fragile mental state, while Wassilak keeps Michael uneasily in the shadows of his own dangerous psychological territory.
John Reidy shows a nice touch as the sympathetic sheriff while also coloring Egan’s questions with a clever dose of curiosity perhaps meant to disarm Michael or perhaps merely to gather more information useful for his search. And Tyler Whiteman is earnest and convincing as typical teen Jeremy, doubling as narrator for this theatrical puzzle.
“Dark Matters” is an intriguing yarn for aficionados of things that go bump in the night. A tighter focus and more spirited delivery, though, could make this Stray Dog rendition a more chilling and closer encounter for its audience.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.