Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Shea Petersen.
A woman vanishes on her way home from shopping. Her frightened husband calls the police, who begin a several-days-long search for her that yields nothing. Then, suddenly, she walks back through the front door, saying she has been with aliens. Not “abducted,” mind you: she went voluntarily. And now she is back because she is to prepare her sixteen-year-old son to be transported to another planet as one of one hundred people selected to start the human race over again.
This is the plot of Dark Matters, a play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who has gone on to write for TV’s Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) now being presented by Exit 63 Theatre. Directed by Nora Lise Ulrey, this play transcends its science fiction premise to become a taut little family drama. Anne Sonneville brings a lot of the same dark energy she displayed in Lifeline’s recent Frankenstein to the role of Bridget, who has had a lifelong infatuation with aliens and who now claims that her life is inextricably intertwined with their needs. Her husband Michael (Michael Carey) has some understandable trouble believing her tale, especially after the local sheriff (Scott Olson) provides information that suggests that Bridget has been seen hanging around with truckers at a local bar. Caught in the middle of all of this is the son, Jeremy (Nick Shank), who may or may not be less than a week away from his own abduction.
Exit 63 is a company working with a shoestring budget, and the location at the Rogers Park Women’s Club aids with that, providing a fine backdrop to play against. Ulrey makes the most of the small space, using every inch of it to find powerful stage pictures in this drama of a family coming apart at the seams. Carey and Shank have several highly charged scenes together before Bridget’s return, and their relationship clearly has some holes in it. (At one point the teenager tells his father that this is the first time they’ve ever spoken seriously, and Michael does not deny it.) Jeremy is confused and nervous (“I haven’t ever had sex!” he tells his parents when presented with the responsibility of repopulating the human race) and is unsure what to think. Michael, on the other hand, fueled by almost two weeks of sleepless nights, is beginning to be worried that his wife may actually be one of the shape-shifting aliens. Through all of this, we (and the sheriff) learn much about the background of this little family, and some of it is not very pretty.
Though Carey is the lead character here, and his rising passions form the center of the story, Sonneville is tasked with something just as difficult: convincing him and the audience that her bizarre tale just might be true. There seems to be no doubt that she believes it, but then again Olson’s sheriff does tell Michael that one out of every four people in this very rural part of Virginia claim to have been abducted by aliens, so perhaps there is something about the place that makes people hallucinate? Of all of the members of her family, though, Bridget is the most focused and (oddly, given her tale) grounded. She knows what she believes must be done and is driven by a compulsion to get Jeremy away from there before he can be abducted. And her determination (and Sonneville’s performance) makes it possible to believe her, no matter how literally out of this world her story sounds.
Shank delivers the most varied performance of the four cast members. As a teen, Jeremy is prone to all sorts of moods. He enters for the first time high, all manic and emotional. At other times he is called on to be sympathetic, excited, frightened, and even reflective, and Shank hits all the right notes to counter Carey’s tightly-wound character (which you just know is going to break down at some point) and his oddly detached mother, who seems a bit too infatuated by the aliens’ plans. Olson begins by playing the friendly sheriff who, called to the Cleary home in the middle of the night, is more than happy to help. Gradually, as his character learns more about this family, Olson too is more on edge. There are some nice little balancing acts in this play.
Ulrey’s direction is tight, and she is aided by some nice lighting from David Goodman-Edberg and original music by Donny Walker. Uriel Gomez’s costumes are on point as well. One thing you should be aware of, though, if you decide to see this play, is that the company is having problems with heat at the Women’s Club building. Dress warmly, and plan to take advantage of the blankets they provide (and perhaps, if the mood strikes you, the warm apple cider and maybe a little whiskey). It’s a chilly facility, but the action of the play helps you to forget that. And you may just find yourself wondering more about alien abductions than you ever have before.
Dark Matters is an Exit 62 Theatre production now playing at Rogers Park Women’s Club, 7077 N. Ashland, Chicago until Jan 27. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.