Jennifer Pennington with Zachary Burrell in Qualities of Starlight.
Photo courtesy of Theatre
Qualities of Starlight
By Gabriel Jason Dean
Directed by Mike Brooks
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Thomas Wolfe famously said you can’t go home again, but watching Gabriel Jason Dean’s play Qualities of Starlight, you can’t help but feel that, at least for some people, it is essential to do exactly that.
In rural Georgia, at the southern end of the Appalachians, Junior (Michael Drury) and Rose (Jennifer Pennington) live in a trailer, mostly living off Junior’s government disability, which they supplement by mowing lawns. They also smoke crystal meth with some frequency, and Rose is given to hallucinating small lizards as a result. When their estranged son Theo (Zachary Burrell) visits for the first time in five years with his wife, Polly (Katherine Walker), long buried secrets and more recent marital strains come to the surface.
That synopsis sounds lugubrious and familiar; the core idea of too many modern American plays, but Dean proves that the dysfunction of the American family dynamic as the great theme of the last century has not quite been exhausted. He establishes such well drawn characters with a great deal of humor, so that in the first act, Junior and Rose at first seem like white trash caricatures, and Theo and Polly come off like a schematic of contemporary marriage, but with each minute that passes, he builds greater dimension and understanding, refusing to allow expectations to dictate terms.
The dialogue is rich and colloquial, and there is great pleasure in just living in the quality of the performances, and director Mike Brooks has designed the action in a horizontal stretch with the audience seated in parallel sections facing each other across the most open portion of the stage. It is a smart use of the unique formation of the Parkside Studio in Iroquois Amphitheatre, which encloses the outdoor stage into something like a black box.
For all the laughter, these characters are all somehow broken in ways that may not be easy to fix, although Dean manages enough resolution without resorting to shortcuts. The plot plays out in something approximating real time, and the interactions thoroughly explore what is driving these people in what they soon realize is a turning point in their lives.
Dean also injects a degree of poetry into the proceedings, using Theo’s life as a scientist who used to amuse his mother with stories about the stars to lend a note of grace to the perspective on these characters. It is an important element that helps lift the story above the ordinary.
It has become one of our expectations that Theatre  productions offer the opportunity for some of the best actors in Louisville to do their best work, and Qualities of Starlight is no exception. Katherine Martin is cast slightly against type, less effusive than we normally see her, carrying the emotional weight of Polly with insight and understanding. Zachary Burrell dares to embrace Theo’s unlikability in the first act: coiled and pensive, before the script allows him to open up in a unique fury of emotional release that challenge all involved. Michael Drury buries his urbanity under added weight, a scruffy beard, and a hunched posture as Junior, and creates a portrait of a redneck rascal gentled by age and infirmity but still unapologetic about past transgressions.
And Jennifer Pennington shows here that she must be counted one of the strongest and most resourceful actors working in this theatrical community. In Pennington’s hands, Rose is essayed in such detail, and with such fluid emotional resonance, that she is revealed to be a catalog of the playwright’s intentions. She captures the tone and texture of the loving mother as well as the drug addled addict, with equal parts humor and understanding. All of the characters surprise with their resiliency, but Ms. Pennington raises the curtain on the full potential of the play.
One of the keys to the playwright’s success in upending stereotypes and making another family conflict so compelling is that he only uses cliché as an entry point for his story, giving his “redneck” people dignity by granting them intelligence and self-awareness. They may be broken, but they are not irredeemable.
I’m glad to see a company again take advantage of this resourceful performance venue. It more or less has the tech and breadth of space of the Iroquois Amphitheatre stage with the intimacy of a black box, and offers smaller groups the opportunity to perform in an historic theatre.
Qualities of Starlight
March 25, 26, 28 & April 1, 2 at 8:00pm
April 3 at 3:00pm
At Parkside Studio – Inside Iroquois Amphitheatre
1080 Amphitheatre Road
Louisville, KY 40214
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on ARTxFM/WXOX-LP, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.