Theo Turner thought he had escaped his parents and life in a double-wide trailer for an academic life exploring the formation of the universe. Unfortunately, he finds that he and his wife need them to complete an adoption. The confrontation with his past forms the foundation of Qualities of Starlight, a thoughtful and entertaining new play at the Source Festival.
The trip to his southern Appalachian home could not get off to a worse start. Theo (Daniel Corey) and his wife Polly (Katie Nighsch-Fairfax) still haven’t recovered emotionally from their unsuccessful attempts to have Polly deliver a child. Complications ensue when Polly hits a deer on a backwoods road and Theo finds out that his parents are now users of crystal methamphetamine (small rocks known as “ice”).
It’s a fertile field for both comedy and drama and the story gets off to a good start. Theo’s dad Junior (Jim Epstein) is a charming rascal who has taken to hoarding a lot of junk he collects when cleaning out foreclosed homes. His mother Rose (Vanessa Bradchulis) is convincing as a mother eager to welcome back her only child and very amusing when confronting the imaginary lizards she sees when under the influence of the drug.
It’s not easy having a delicate conversation with two plain-speaking country folk. (“Adoptin’? Why?”) Theo has not seen his parents since his marriage to Polly five years ago. Not surprisingly, there are grievances just under the surface on both sides which soon start spilling out.
In addition, Theo and Polly still need to work out their differences. Polly resents the fact Theo has emotionally withdrawn from her and focused on his work. Theo’s career is just taking off due to his theory about a cycle of small “big bangs” creating the universe which has lead to a feature article in Astronomy magazine. There are some nice cosmological metaphors which run throughout the play and form the basis for the Qualities of Starlight title, such as the fact we are seeing the effects of events that happened long ago.
Despite the play’s promising start, about the midway point it starts to falter. Theo takes a rash action that seems out of character to facilitate the humor and the drama. The audience is never exposed to the monster that Junior was and that Theo resents, making his extreme reactions to his father harder to accept on an emotional level. The notion that Theo and Polly might make good parents seems weak until the end of the play. Unfortunately, the play is also tied up with some far too neat character developments that do not seem earned.
Still, there is much to enjoy in Qualities of Starlight, not the least of which are a couple of fine performances by Jim Epstein and Vanessa Bradchulis as the parents. They manage to rise above some of the too country dialogue and the obvious clichés (such as pro wrestling and road kill) to make a dysfunctional old couple both semi-realistic and funny. The problems of the two couples are nicely juxtaposed, sometimes through simultaneous action on different sides of the well-designed set.
These messed up people are entertaining and ultimately sympathetic. While not totally convincing, Qualities of Starlight shows people determined to recover from the bruises of the past and move towards a brighter, more hopeful future.
Qualities of Starlight
By Gabriel Jason Dean
Directed by Sasha Brätt
Produced by The Source Festival
Reviewed by Steven McKnight\
Running time: 1 hour 55 min (one intermission)