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Qualities of Starlight

a World Premiere
by Gabriel Jason Dean

COMPANY : Essential Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 3763

SHOWING : July 08, 2010 - August 08, 2010



Qualities of Starlight
by Gabriel Jason Dean, directed by Peter Hardy
The World Premiere of a twisted family comedy about a successful young astronomer who brings his wife home to the north Georgia mountains and the simple country household in which he grew up. And where his parents are now addicted to crystal meth. Winner of the 2010 Essential Theatre Playwriting Award.
Adult language and onstage drug use.

Director Peter Hardy
Production Manager Jennifer Brown
Technical Director Harley Gould
Lighting Designer Trish Harris
Costume Designer Jane Kroessig
Stage Manager Kathy Manning
Asst Tech Director Alex Riviere
Sound Designer Spencer G. Stephens
Junior Daniel Burnley
Polly Kelly Criss
Theo Matt Felten
Rose Patti French
John Lee Understudy Tim Habeger
John Lee Alex Van
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


Dust on a Balloon
by Dedalus
Thursday, August 5, 2010
In the beginning, there was an idea for a play. Cosmological discoveries swirl in an infinitesimal space in the public consciousness, but all sorts of pseudoscientific drivel gets drawn in until a singularity explodes into a full-fledged production that is as much empty air as the universe at large is empty space. Or, to be more accurate, until the play is filled with the dark energy of misguided concepts and bad ideas (just as the universe at large is filled with the dark energy and dark matter that expand the universe as if galaxy clusters were just specks of dust on an inflating balloon).

Still, you really have to love the bright spots of true human interaction, character growth, and dizzyingly compelling performances on view, just as you have to love the few spots of brightness that work their way through the glare pollution of an Atlanta night.

Theo and Polly are a couple in crisis. He is a brilliant astronomer, working on the “Big” cosmological questions (SOMETHING had to cause the Big Bang). She is, well, there’s dark matter hiding what she does, so we don’t know. All we do know is that she cannot carry a child who survives more than a handful of weeks, and she is pissed at her husband for seemingly being oblivious to it all. Now, they are adopting a child, and must get Theo’s parents to come to California for an interview with child services. When they get to Theo’s Georgia home, however, they discover that his parents have become crystal meth addicts.

My first problem with this piece is the idea of mining addiction to crystal meth for humor. Sure, drunks and stoners can be funny, but there is NOTHING funny about a meth-head. That the production chooses to embody Rose’s drug-induced hallucinations as cutesy lizard puppets doesn’t help. It just does not work as humor and does not work as drama. It’s just dumb. The playwright later makes the questionable choice of giving one of Rose’s hallucinations (her father) an existence independent of her mind. At one point, Theo sees and converses with him, as if dead people are always around us, and all we need is a toke from a glass pipe to see and hear them. Now there’s a message we can all share with our grieving friends!

My second problem with the play is the “science as metaphor for human relationships” motif. I’m always a bit leery when science is used to allegorize human interaction, “Social Darwinism” being a leading example of this unfortunate mindset. Here, the point is made (again and again) that the expanding universe theories of modern cosmology is a metaphor for human interaction. The metaphor isn’t even clearly realized, as the expansion of the universe is a relatively constant acceleration, while the separations between the characters expand and contract with alarmingly unmotivated regularity. In this case, its “science as an excuse for contrivance” rather than “science as metaphor,

But, (and this is a great big BUT), the performances are brilliantly clear, with interactions and unstated fears and angers clearly shining through the murky contrivances of the script. Matt Felten brings a winning intelligence to Theo, an intelligence rooted in his emotional attachments to his wife and to his parents. Kelly Criss is every bit his match as the wounded and wounding Polly, wearing her vulnerability on her sleeve, but backing it up with some surprising moments of strength. Patricia French and Daniel Burnley bring dimensions to the cliché-ridden roles of the parents, Rose and Junior. Theirs is a relationship filled with slings and daggers and drug-induced stupors. That their addiction is never fully explained just underscores its contrivance (Let’s get some laughs out of old folks getting stoned), but, at least the script does (too rarely for my tastes) show us the dark side of the addiction and the price that is being paid for it.

I’d like to compliment director Peter Hardy for orchestrating a celestial symphony of emotional tones, and for keeping his cast from indulging in gimmicky shtick-like behavior. But, if the choice of using the lizard puppets was his rather than the playwright’s, I may have to take it all back, The puppet scenes just jarred, completely obliterating any sense of emotional realism that was being achieved. It was as if they were from a completely different play. It’s a little like being disappointed in a horror film by the zipper down the monster’s back – we can’t accept the lizards as a real hallucination because we see the zipper down the puppeteer’s back.

On the other hand, the play does have all those bright spots of real emotional connection, fully scripted and fully in control of director and cast. And the ending is an elegiac coda to memory and affection and connection and, yes, to the qualities that starlight can bring to the heart, at least when it’s not blasted away by city-light glare.

To run counter to my stated aversion, starlight has the same fragile quality that human relationships can display. They can grip the heart, but they can also be drowned out by the glare of tragedy and the shortcomings of being, well, human.

So, Mr. Dean has the germ of a good play here that I wish he’d send through the word processor a few more times. Find a real reason for the addiction, find real reasons for the reconciliations and sacrifices, suggest the cosmological connections rather than have the ghost of Rose’s father declaim us to us as if they’re profound truths.

I’m much more convinced by “isn’t it interesting how alike these concepts are” than by an axiomatic “This scientific theory is always and must always equal this human quality.”

Now that the rant my over, I’m going to go out and see if I can spot some starlight behind the haze. Or at least find a scary lizard or two to chase.

-- Brad Rudy (

Struck us differently by uppermiddlebrow
I totally respect your reactions to the drug-taking, Brad, but we saw it as ghastly and pitiful rather than comical, albeit the lizard was both funny and terrifying by turns. We're never around addicts and being invited to think about this common crystal meth addiction seemed almost overdue. The lies, deceptions and cravings were done very well. And reasons for addiction - if reasons are required - were supplied in overabundance: economic depression of rural Georgia, illness leading to Junior's inability to play guitar, Rose's failure to come to terms with the loss of her father when she was a young child, already addicted to tobacco, their son's rejection of them ...

I don't go in for mysticism or metaphysics so could have done without the cosmology and found the ending unsatisfying. But overall I'd say situation, characters and dialogue were convincing. There's apparently an epidemic of crystal meth in rural America and exploring its impact on families seems worth doing in theatre.


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