BWW Reviews: QUALITIES OF STARLIGHT Offers an Honest Look at Drug Abuse
We all have secrets. We all have ways of coping with disappointment or pain. Some of those coping methods do more harm than good. None of these ideas are necessarily original, and they've all been dramatized before. However, the story of an elderly couple who secretly copes by using crystal meth is an unexpected one that has yet to be told. That's one of many reasons that makes Qualities of Starlight, the new play by Gabriel Jason Dean now playing at Vortex Rep, such a riveting and effective drama.
Early on in Qualities of Starlight, which is inspired by Dean's own family, cosmologist Theo Turner (Toby Minor) and his wife Polly (Andrea Smith) venture out to a trailer park in rural Georgia to visit Theo's parents, Rose (Jennifer Underwood) and Junior (Dennis Bailey). The Turner's have great news. They've decided to adopt a baby. There's just one catch. The birth mother wants to interview the grandparents to be. It's then that Theo discovers that his parents have been addicted to meth for years. The stage is set for both comedy and drama.
Though there are a few puzzling moments in the text (a moment in which one character breaks the forth wall seems extremely out of place), Dean's script is overall incredibly smart, effective, memorable, and honest. Though the themes tackled in the piece-love, loss, anger, pain, abuse, unhappy marriages, impending fatherhood-have been explored by countless other playwrights, Dean effortlessly swirls them all together and does so with heaping doses of both humor and tragedy. He's created a distinct work akin to a modern Long Day's Journey Into Night with a peppering of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If work like this continues, Gabriel Jason Dean is sure to be thought of a great modern American playwright, and though there are a few minor sequences in need of editing, Qualities of Starlight already feels like a solid, established American drama.
Director Rudy Ramirez does a wonderful job at allowing these well-developed characters burst to life. It's hard to see a director's hands on the work at all. Everything feels real and organic, even the moments where certain characters have paranoid meth-induced hallucinations. The attention to reality extends to the work of set designer Ann Marie Gordon, prop designer Helen Parish, and lighting designer Patrick Anthony. Gordon's double wide trailer set is decrepit and decaying, a fine metaphor for the characters themselves. The set is littered by junk and trash by Parish who creates an environment that one would expect to see on the TV show "Hoarders," and Anthony's lighting design evokes the hot, sticky feeling of rural Georgia.
The cast also turns in some remarkably realistic and honest work. Though her character occasionally comes off whiney and abrasive, Andrea Smith is nonetheless heartbreaking and sympathetic as Polly. She particularly comes alive when admitting to the pain and loss she feels after two failed pregnancies. As Theo, Toby Minor does a wonderful job at playing the somewhat neurotic scientist who feels embarrassment regarding his humble childhood. Dennis Bailey is exceptional as Junior Turner, especially when he gets to grapple with his desire to clean up his act and help his son start a new family. As per usual, Jennifer Underwood is riveting as Rose Turner. She creates a character who makes pill-popping Violet Weston from August: Osage County look like a woman who's got her stuff together. But despite Rose's many hallucinations of poisonous lizards, there's a loving, nurturing mother underneath the drug-fueled hysteria, and Underwood is capable of both the manic and maternal sides of the character.
Though Vortex Rep bills Qualities of Starlight as a "twisted comedy," it's far more than that. It's a well-written, thought-provoking exploration of drug use and the fragility of family. Yes, family secrets have been explored time and time again, but rarely like this.
NOTE: Recommended for mature audiences only.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Bottom Photo (Left to right): Toby Minor and Dennis Bailey. Photo by Kimberley Mead.
QUALITIES OF STARLIGHT plays Vortex Rep at 2307 Manor Road, Austin 78722 now thru June 15th. Performances are Thursdays - Sundays at 8pm. Tickets are $10-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.vortexrep.org.