The stage is scattered with junk. The backdrop evokes a canopy of stars, far from cities plagued by light pollution. It’s a jarring juxtaposition of beautiful and unpleasant imagery, one that speaks to both the strengths and weaknesses of Gabriel Jason Dean‘s Qualities of Starlight. One of three new full-length plays featured in this year’s Source Festival, the story is an exploration of tragedy and hope that is both flawed and touching.
Theo (Daniel Corey), a young cosmologist, arrives at his childhood home in the Appalachians with his wife, Polly (Katie Nigsch-Fairfax), to announce the couple’s plans to adopt a child. After years of avoiding communication with them, Theo and Polly find his parents, Rose (Vanessa Bradchulis) and Junior (Jim Epstein), deeply troubled and addicted to crystal meth. Compounding that misery, Polly and Theo have suffered a series of miscarriages that have corroded their marriage.
In Dean’s work, the universe is a metaphor for family dynamics. Theo’s theories and terminology help him explore the origins of addiction and estrangement. The conceit works, but Starlight is hobbled by a few “Huh?” moments.
Like the Big Bang—-a favorite reference—-this family seems driven by productive and destructive energy, interacting with a mix of tenderness and violence. Rose and Junior, adept at portraying addicts, bring humor and discontentment to their marriage and relationship with Theo. But when Junior and his son come to blows, their fight is unconvincing, and Junior recovers too quickly. Meanwhile, Polly is struggling with self-esteem, but comes off perturbed rather than miserable.
In the second scene, as they near Rose and Junior’s house, the younger couple hits a deer and brings the poor mangled animal to the yard. “That’s what I do now, I kill things,” says Polly. It’s a memorable and revealing line. But is it really necessary to leave the deer onstage throughout the rest of the play? Then ask the actors to interact with it? The corpse quickly goes from meaningful symbol to bizarre distraction.
In the second act, Theo gets high on meth. (I won’t reveal why.) It’s humorous and revealing—-until he breaks the fourth wall. Theo looks out at the audience, sees us, and wonders where we came from. There’s something to be said for trusting a creative impulse, but this one amounts to little more than a disconcerting blip of metatheatrics.
These choices feel especially strange because Qualities of Starlight is so frequently well-structured and poetic. Toward its end, both couples must decide on the next step in their marriages. Two scenes about two very different relationships—-one healing, one irreparable—-play out in a chorus of beautifully interlaced dialogue. When Dean hones in on relationships, he burrows down to the roots of estrangement, but finds hope along the way.
Qualities of Starlight runs through June 30 at Source. Tickets $20.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography.