When something terrible happens, we go to another planet. Time warps and stops. Pain presses against the glass, begging, demanding to be let in.
In Steve Yockey’s lovely, unsettling play, the planet is Pluto—a planet lonely, dark and cold—and recently demoted to dwarf star status.
Somehow, that’s a fitting setting for a play about the enormity of violent impulses that reduces tragedy to an ever-looping sound bite. Directed with virtuoso restraint by Michael Dove, Yockey’s Pluto is about isolation and cold-blooded acts, but it is also about connection—those connections that grow slack over time as well as the new connections forged by random acts of carnage.
A sense of loss suffuses Elizabeth’s (Jennifer Mendenhall) lived-in kitchen. It looks like any other ordinary suburban kitchen, yet something is not quite right. Even as Elizabeth busily puts away groceries and tries to get her unhappy, misfit son Bailey (Mark Halpern) to chat, unease and strangeness hangs in the air.
Maybe it is Bailey’s weird laughing fits, maybe it is the upside-down cherry tree bisecting the house, or the fact that is perpetually 9:30 in the morning or the manic visits from Bailey’s childhood friend Maxine (Brynn Tucker), who has grown into a witchy, cutting and wildly angry young woman. No wonder Elizabeth has the tendency to chirp “Today’s just another day!” as if it were a fervent incantation against bad mojo.
Then there’s the dog, Cerberus (Kimberly Gilbert), who possesses three heads and the gift of metaphysical gab that pours out its mouth with rabid ferocity. Those up on their mythology may remember this pooch as the guardian of the Underworld who serves Pluto, ruler of Hades. Here, Cerberus stands guard in the corner, waiting, watching quietly and with all the patience of time.
Elizabeth valiantly copes with it all—the dog, the tree, the mopey son, the stopped clock—until the refrigerator starts shaking and some sort of thing tries to escape from between the milk and juice. In one inspired, screwball comedienne move, Elizabeth whacks it with a frying pan.
But even Elizabeth—whom Cerebus notes, has “moxie”—cannot hold back Death (a spookily peaceful David Zimmerman), who eventually climbs out of the fridge and into her reality. At this point, Pluto resembles that classic “Twilight Zone” episode where a traveling novelty salesman distracts Death from taking away a sick little girl.
Only this time, Death may dawdle a little, but ultimately cannot be dissuaded from fetching the main person—and other people—he came for. Acceptance of tragedy is all that is left, along with the grieving and the pain that someone you felt you knew and certainly loved better than yourself is an awful creature, someone you don’t recognize.
Closes March 15, 2014
Forum Theatre at
Round House Theatre Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: Pay What You Want or $20 reserved
Wednesdays thru Sundays
After a steadfastly casual first half, Pluto becomes eerie and compelling, almost cathartic and comforting as the characters face the inevitable. The play manages to treat the subject matter of what nowadays are almost routine mass shootings with dignity and gravitas instead of sensationalism and numbing emotion. It is almost as if Yockey pays a classical tribute to all the victims of serial killings (including the perpetrators themselves) and their families in an honorable, humane way—and there is an odd solace to be taken from that. Yockey also tempers the play from getting to high-minded with touches of, if you will pardon the expression, gallows humor.
The acting rises to the elevated feel of the production. It is times like this you are once again reminded of the intelligence of actors Mendenhall and Gilbert. Both are so observant and attentive—listening, taking the play in with all their senses. When Mendenhall’s Elizabeth finally gives up and folds into herself it is like seeing an origami of anguish. And Gilbert’s Cerberus is a wholly convincing hound of myth—watchful, wise, so devoted. When she tells Elizabeth about her duties and posts, remarking “too many schools” with just the right shade of acceptance and sadness. Halpern acutely conveys the agony of someone who doesn’t fit into his own skin, while Tucker exudes livid energy as someone fiercely at home in her body.
Pluto may not be considered a planet anymore, but for the universal within us it is still a destination—a place where we all must go, a journey ennobled by a well-spoken stranger and a faithful dog who speaks the truth.
Pluto by Steve Yockey . Directed by Michael Dove . Featuring Jennifer Mendenhall, Kimberly Gilbert, Mark Halpern, Brynn Tucker and David Zimmerman. Scenic designer: John Bowhers . Costume designer: Frank Labovitz . Lighting designer: Katie McCreary . Sound designer: Thomas Sowers . Props designer: Patti Kalil . Dramaturg: Hannah Hessel Ratner . Stage manager: Christine Alexander . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.