Aguirre-Sacasa often dabbles in the other-wordly (he’s written for Marvel comics and script-doctored the apparently cursed Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. One of his early works is It’s A Bird. . . It’s A Plane. . . It’s Superman, and he worked as both writer and producer in the final season of “Big Love” on HBO. The reason for this resume is to establish his bona fides in both the areas of fantasy and relationships. In Dark Matters, the two subjects collide.
Bridget Cleary (Sarah Cannon) is a wife, mother, and (from her husband’s account) amateur astronomer who is researching aliens for a book. Said husband, Michael Cleary (David Wassilak), is a milk deliveryman and a writer himself. Son Jeremy (Tyler Whiteman) is a 16-year-old high school student, seemingly a normal kid, and to prove it, he even plays basketball. The play opens with the telephone answering machine delivering a message from Sarah. It’s late afternoon, and she’s on her way home from the supermarket. But she never arrives, and the context in which we hear the message is when Michael plays it for Benjamin Egan (John Reidy), the town sheriff. The family moved to an isolated area in the Virginia mountains six months back because, according to Michael, Sarah grew up in the country and never became comfortable in Washington D.C. because of all the city lights. This, along with many other “facts” is cast into question later.
Michael tells Sheriff Egan that it’s not unusual for Bridget to disappear for hours at a time, but he’s worried because she only wanders at night. He says (later) she was a sleepwalker as a child, so we think this might explain a few things, but it really doesn’t. Shortly after 1 a.m., Jeremy arrives home possibly high (Egan suggests crystal meth)but the boy claims he’s only had “one beer.” He’s relieved to find out the sheriff isn’t there for him but concerned when he finds out about his mother. For about 2/3 of Act I, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and fruitless searching for Mom.
Her car is found abandoned with no signs of damage or any kind of struggle. A couple of days into the search, Egan claims he has spoken to a bartender named Angela Stone at a dive called “Deedle’s” where Ms. Stone claimed Bridget was a regular who often went off with men, hence her nocturnal wanderings. Michael refuses to even entertain that notion. Jeremy remains hopeful, even constructing an elaborate story about where she might be. Michael is in the process of saying that they’re going to have to accept that she’s not coming back when. . . . she does!
Disheveled, barefoot and upset, Bridget bursts through the door with a preposterous story. Michael doesn’t believe her, and Jeremy is skeptical but comes around in time. She says that in one week, aliens who are planning to colonize a new world with 100 handpicked humans they’ve been watching for years are coming for Jeremy. He is one of the elect (is it a coincidence that his initials are J.C. and he’s her only begotten son and all that Christ-symbol blather?) She claims that “they” asked her to come with them to let her know what was going on, and that “they” have been around since she was a little girl when she saw them first in dreams. Later, they began to take an active part in her life, once even rescuing her and Jeremy in an emergency. As one might expect, Michael thinks she’s batshit crazy.
The play acquires some much needed energy when Cannon shows up, and for the most part, it sustains it. The Clearys have a secret, and it involves Michael. The sheriff clearly suspects him at first, as is the norm, and uses one of his books to bolster his opinion. “It wasn’t very nice,” he tells the worried husband. He seems to become even more wary of Michael when he learns of the marital incident. At first, Michael is something of a milquetoast, and he seems to need his wife around to regain his masculine swagger. He becomes convinced that not only is she not telling the truth, but she is not even Bridget. Cannon’s best scene is when she tries to convince him that she is his wife, that the danger to the boy is real, and she and Michael must get him out of town before “they” come.
There are some odd choices by the playwright (I assume) in diction. A character will start to say something, but correct it to something else. For example, “She went to the store. To the supermarket.” There are a lot of those, which makes it either strangely constructed or under-rehearsed. I suspect the former. And while Jeremy is the catalyst and onstage a good deal of the time, including beginning both acts and ending the play with soliloquies, he seems dull. His turn as the doomed Andrew in the recent Southern Baptist Sissies at Citilites showed us what he can do, so the problem isn’t with him. Wassilak is stiff in the beginning too. I don’t know—maybe the idea is to make everyone a suspect of some sort. Even the reliable John Reidy seems on autopilot much of the time. And he’s the only one who never quite gets in sync, but then he also isn’t part of the family unit, and we’re told that this story is about families. Cannon is, as always, very good.
The most grating parts of the play, however, are the lapses in logic. Early on, Egan asks to read one of Sarah’s books. Michael says he has them in the attic and he’ll get one for him. Egan agrees and says they’ll go out to search for her after that. Fade to black and we never hear about that matter again until we learn she has never actually written a book. If she spent so much time in Deedle’s Bar, why were no other customers interviewed but just the bartender who isn’t there at a crucial point? Most important, if “they” are always around, as Bridget insists, why does she talk loudly and long about her plans to take Jeremy away so the aliens can’t make him go? Do “they” have selective hearing? At one point, Egan tells Michael, “Mr. Cleary, you are not making any sense.” Well, at several points, Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa, neither are you.
Okay, this is sci-fi, and I get that, but if we are distracted by plot and continuity issues, it makes it harder to concentrate on the unreal realities before us. Is Bridget really Bridget? Is Michael a good husband and dad or a violent, controlling personality? And while Earl doesn’t think his book is “nice,” we never do know what Michael writes about. Has Jeremy inherited or absorbed his mother’s oddities? And is Sheriff Egan what he claims to be? (It might be a good idea to put a badge on him, just so he does look like a real sheriff. I’m not giving anything away here; rather, just that he should have one.) When the subject of lights in the sky comes up, Egan blows it off by saying, “We’re in Virginia. In the mountains. Where one out of four people claim to have been abducted. And speak in sentence fragments.” Well, no, that last one isn’t there, but I feel like it could have been.
Still, I enjoyed much of Dark Matters. There are a few scene blackouts that are too long (what’s up with that in the alien shows now playing in St. Louis?) but generally they add to the suspense rather than throw off the pace. The play does that on its own, and I don’t think it’s Justin Been’s direction that is at fault. When things get going (finally), everything moves along just as it should. The set is a shabby living room/study which seems appropriate for artistic types (Been gets credit) and the sound is excellent for setting mood (Been, again, apparently in Orson Welles mode). Gary Bell’s costumes look right on the characters, but he might have given Bridget a couple of more shirts. Tyler Duenow’s lights play around the set window, indicating times of day and showing us some eerie rosy hues. At one point, he fills the Abbey with stars, a lovely and other-worldly effect in that space.
Dark Matters runs at Stray Dog Theatre through May 21 (just one more week). Contact www.straydogtheatre.org for more information. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT