On opening night of Deborah Zoe Laufer's End Days, now at Actor's Theatre through May 1, Sylvia Stein reminded her child of the scriptural prophecy that the sun, the moon and the stars will all be obliterated on Judgment Day. Within less than 48 hours, another play opened in Charlotte, and a sagely parental figure was once again -- no, over and over! -- prompting a child to say farewell to all the heavenly bodies.
What can this incredible juxtaposition of events mean??!? Absolutely nothing to sensible folk, but this is the Bible Belt, goddammit! Surely, one of Charlotte's world-class wackos can divine and decipher what the hand of the Almighty has encoded in this dire sequence of events.
In the meanwhile, Sylvia's own divinations will have to do for fanciers of apocalyptic comedy. For a good while, I'll admit that I was worried that Laufer would remain so fixated on mocking Sylvia's visions that her script, like Beth Henley's Signature at Charlotte Rep so many years ago, would wind up strangling in its own satire.
Fortunately, Laufer is as fascinated by the dramatic clash between faith and despair as she is by their comic eccentricities. Sylvia exemplifies a virulent form of faith, the kind that has her cocksure that she alone has the true belief system and all others are doomed. Within her family, she is outnumbered by apostles of despair. Her husband Arthur's opposition is of the passive variety. Since 9/11, when he was spared from annihilation at his workplace in the Twin Towers by sheer luck, Arthur has sunk deeply into apathy and inertia, rarely bestirring himself to eat, dress, or venture outdoors. Sylvia's daughter, Rachel, has retreated into a cocoon of resentment, aggressively resisting all forms of belief and companionship, especially her mother's, compounding her defiant isolation with her Goth costuming and makeup.
Into their lives walks Nelson Steinberg, who completes an elegant quartet of opposites within opposites. Wearing an Elvis costume and strumming a guitar, Nelson smilingly absorbs the taunts, the missiles and the beatings showered upon him by his high school classmates, eager to embrace any belief system and unworried that one might contradict another. Even as Arthur rouses himself from his torpor and helps Nelson with his bar mitzvah lessons, Nelson flummoxes Sylvia by accepting her invitation to attend her church -- and continuing merrily along with his bar mitzvah preparations.
Nelson is as irrepressible as he is impressionable, and his adoration of Rachel is what gets him into the Stein household. Gradually, he demonstrates the uncanny ability to reach the softer, better selves of both Stein women and to awaken Arthur's dormant spine -- and appetite. Amid all the Judgment Day kerfuffle, that's the real action. By the time Nelson and the Steins are bunkered for their Judgment Day vigil, Arthur has put himself in charge of sandwiches and snack foods.
Each of the Steins' exteriors covers a better person underneath and a satisfying peeling that brings it out -- textbook manna for actors. Casting the comedy, director Chip Decker has assembled a core ensemble that meshes perfectly. Five years after her memorable debut at Theatre Charlotte as Emily in Our Town, Meagan Douglas still passes for a high schooler under the macabre makeup, managing to register everything coolly, clearly and convincingly. The scene in the cafeteria where she takes up for Nelson against his oppressors is pivotal, and there's not a false note in it.
Quite a feat when you see how nerdy this would-be Elvis courting Rachel really is in the slender figure of Joshua Ozro Lucero, making his professional debut. No makeup required for Lucero to look goofy, but kudos are warranted for keeping Nelson lovable despite his constant chatter. And yes, there is a growth curve for Nelson as well, emerging from his jumpsuit in the black light of Rachel's love.
Allison Lamb as Sylvia has to be applauded for finding enough lovable puppy in her dogmatic character to keep our faith in her. Spiritually, Sylvia is totally blind, but Lamb finds her nuances in the family sphere, where Mrs. Stein is worse as a wife than she is as a mother. Arthur accepts his wife's unfeeling, hypocritical scorn as a just reward, and Lamar Wilson beautifully understands his kinship with Nelson all evening long, making Mr. Stein's transformation the most heartening of all.
There are whimsical touches throughout the evening, beginning with Stan Peal's set, strewn with cracking and crumbling walls, levitating dishes and furniture and a skyscape as expressive as Picasso at the Lapin Agile. After the spectacle of Elvis's yarmulke, we also have a sweet pair of cameos for Michael Sharpe. He's the Jesus that Sylvia quizzes about the End of Days, and when Nelson hooks her on A Brief History of Time, he reappears to Rachel through a pot narcosis as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Voice available separately.
See, there's a link between mother and daughter after all. Pure hallucination, but it reliably foreshadows their ultimate reconciliation.
Although not supported by Margaret Wise Brown's canonical text, there is a cosmic parallel between End Days and Chad Henry's musical adaptation of Goodnight Moon -- beside the wild fluctuations in the firmament. Elvis!
Yes, the delightful Children's Theatre version at ImaginOn does stretch the vocabulary-challenged bedtime classic to a stupendous 51 minutes -- including a "Hey Diddle Trio" to hype Clarabelle the cow's three attempts to jump over the moon. But when Matthew Keffer isn't mincing inside Clarabelle's wig -- or popping out of the painting of the three bears on three chairs -- he's moonlighting as the Tooth Fairy. Aside from the cunning little wings, it's the jumpsuited Vegas icon once again.
Keffer's is the most striking set of cameos, but Mark Sutton isn't far behind as the Cat with the fiddle, the Clock and the indispensible Moon. But of course, the driving force behind this story is the Old Lady's attempts to settle down Bunny and get him to sleep. As the clock circles onward, "Hush" doesn't seem to be working.
Tanya McClellan and Ashby Blakely are simply wonderful as these timeless antagonists. But the whole production overflows with charm, from Elisheba Ittoop's delicious sound design to Jennifer Matthews' adorable costumes. Scenic design by Ryan Wineinger allows the zany story line to flow freely from lullaby to vaudeville.
The Beginning Is Coming: All the rumors about the imminent return of CL's Charlotte Theater Awards are true. Catch the video announcement online at http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/cltv.