Ben Randle

THEATRE DIRECTOR

REVIEW, SF Bay Times: Into the Clear Blue Sky: The Energy of Youth

by Lily Janiak

Into the Clear Blue Sky, a Sleepwalkers Theatre world premiere currently running at the Phoenix Theater, shows that you don’t need a huge budget to create magical and moving art - even if your subject is post-apocalyptic, suburban New Jersey. The script, by young playwright J.C. Lee, is itself a work of impassioned poetry, endowing each of its five characters with rich, incandescent inner lives. And under the inventive direction of Ben Randle, the stage itself becomes poetic, too. Into the Clear Blue Sky, in its brief 70 minutes, is a refreshing reminder of what theater - and only theater - can accomplish: collective acts of extraordinary imagination. 

In Lee’s play, the world is a scary place. Beaches no longer exist; displaced seagulls could fly into your kitchen at any moment; suburbia’s ocean of concrete casts restless young girls into the real ocean, where sea monsters lurk in the waves. But for Mika (the superb Dina Percia) and her family, the world of home is just as scary: Her scientist father (Christopher Nelson) both lets his experiments run horrifically amuck and runs away himself. Her mother Margaret (Pamela Smith) tries to scrub the past off her children, scouring too harshly skin that just won’t get clean. And brother Kale (Eric Kerr) is rebuffed as the family’s would-be hero, finding solace only in his friend Cody (Adrian Anchondo), who, much to Kale’s annoyance, pines for recognition as a poet - and a lover. 

Percia shines as the emotional anchor of the production. With her bell-like voice, wide eyes and small stature, she certainly looks the part of a young girl. But the intelligence and stage-presence she brings to the role ensure that Mika, who says things like, “my steely justice materialized,” and who wields her middle school debate trophy “like a saber,” is precocious without becoming precious. So adept is Lee’s playwriting, however, that every other actor gets his or her own moments of transcendence: Nelson brings out both his character’s noble intentions and the shame that debilitates them; Smith, in reading aloud the letters runaway Mika writes to Margaret (a favorite, and effective, device of Lee’s), somehow reconciles her character’s perceptive wisdom with her willed ignorance; and Anchondo, as Cody, comes to terms with his unrequited love through profound acts of the imagination. 

Randle’s direction makes imagination literal. Flashlights (by lighting designers Christian Mejia and Alexander Senchak) create both undersea plunges and starry nights. Sound (by designer Colin Trevor) leavens the proceedings with the sort of background music a B-movie might use in an action scene, even as it constantly destabilizes, with spaceships taking off and thunder crashing. The set, by Randle and Maya Linke, is like a collection of building blocks: characters transform it into everything from roaring ocean waves to an imposing gate to a scientific lab on the moon. 

Into the Clear Blue Sky is the second installment in a trilogy by Lee, but the play more than stands on its own as an impeccable example of the exciting, visionary work a young playwright and a young company can do. And, for whatever it’s worth, the night I attended, I encountered a highly sought-after but almost unheard-of theatrical phenomenon: an audience composed almost exclusively of young people. 

Into the Clear Blue Sky continues (Thursday to Saturday, 8pm) until April 30 at the Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason Street, San Francisco. Tickets ($15 to $17), call (415) 913-7272 or at sleepwalkerstheater.com

Check out Lily’s blog at http://lilyjaniak.blogspot.com/ 

Read the review on their website here.