Ben Randle

THEATRE DIRECTOR

REVIEW, The Idiolect: "I'll Fly Away"

by Sam Hurwitt

Sleepwalkers Theatre’s entire current season is devoted to 28-year-old playwright J.C. Lee’s This World and After trilogy, which got off to an intriguing start with This World Is Good back in August. The current production, Into the Clear Blue Sky, doesn’t have any of the same characters, but it shares many themes and other elements with the first play. There’s talk of apocalyptic events, which in This World were speculation about the future and in Clear Blue Sky are a vaguely defined status quo—and a completely different doomsday scenario than the one outlined in the previous play in any case.  Both plays are very much about the relationship between a brother and a sister, one of whom leaves the other behind in a dramatic fashion, and in both cases there’s a brooding mom who communicates mostly in monologues through letters read aloud (this time it’s not her fault because she’s the one left behind).

Into the Clear Blue Sky takes place in a post-apocalyptic New Jersey where cannibal mutants roam the streets and “dogs the size of Chevys are tearing through libraries.” But the cataclysmic event that brought all this on is left vague, because ultimately it’s not something that happened out in the world at all but a traumatic night in the home. “Ever since her little hands went black, the world’s gone to hell.” Young Mika’s hands have turned pitch black. She wears white gloves to cover them, but nothing will wash the black away. At the beginning of the play she runs off on a quest to swim to the moon in seas that are rising because of global warming, in hopes that someone up there will be able to fix her. Her brother Kale chases after her, to try to protect her, bring her home and make her forgive him for something that’s revealed (or at least more explicitly suggested) very late in the play.

It’s hard to tell how old the characters are supposed to be. Dina Percia, who played a different sister in the previous play, has the swagger of a fearless 10-year-old as Mika, who talks through her adventures as if they’re a child’s game, which maybe they are. “Come any closer and I’ll scramble your DNA,” she says. “You won’t have any relatives.” When she’s on the sea she trash-talks Poseidon to do his worst, which strangely enough is the same thing I used to do on the beach as a kid. She’s a picture of defiance, even if it’s unclear for the longest time what she’s defying.

Eric Kerr has an earnest, pleading, somewhat tortured adolescent quality as Kale, who’s fixated on finding Mika to the exclusion of everything else. He’s quickly joined—well, first captured and then joined—by Adrian Anchondo’s achingly sensitive Cody, the boy next door who’s in love with Kale. Shirtless and war-painted, Cody pretends to be a battle-hardened badass, but he’s touchingly needy and vulnerable as he can’t bring himself to read Kale the poem he wrote for him even when he’s asleep.

Pamela Smith is stern and a little at sea as their heavily-accented mother, whom they call Margaret instead of Mom. Margaret comes off as angry all the time and shows few signs of softness or tenderness. When Mika sends her letters carried by birds, she just complains that the birds shit all over the place. Whenever Kale talks about rescuing Mika, Margaret yells at him not to touch Mika or look at her, so whatever’s going on it can’t be good.

Their father, a scientist, left on a homemade shuttle to find an antidote—whether it’s for his daughter’s condition or the state of the world isn’t clear, but they amount to the same thing. Largely absent for the first part of the play, Christopher Nelson as the dad gives an apologetic monologue about how Margaret wouldn’t put up with his scientific ways, then he reappears as a peevish, sad-sack doctor on the moon.

Lee’s language is lushly poetic, full of funny turns of phrase and gags about what a hellhole New Jersey is. “I am the sinless sibling, the sanctified sister,” Mika says, and she identifies herself as one of the “Underage Sheroes of Camden, first class.” It’s also packed with strong imagery, such as the letters delivered by paper birds on a stick, and that’s definitely true of Ben Randle’s visually appealing production as well.

Randle’s evocative set is all black-and-white, with overlarge scraps of handwritten notes hanging on the back wall and a pattern of white shards on the black floor that looks like a rectangle that quickly shatters into chaos but is later revealed to represent a tree. Wes Crain’s costumes also stick to the B&W palette, and Colin Trevor’s sound design is heavy on loud thundering sound effects. There’s a lot of creative use of flashlights in Christian Mejia and Alexander C. Senchak’s lighting design, particularly for underwater scenes.

The play would be endlessly frustrating to the literal-minded, because all the action takes place within the realm of metaphor.  Something terrible and personal and real happened in the past, but it has spun out into an elaborate fantasy landscape that sets the terms for everything that’s happening now. None of this is spelled out, but the upshot is that nothing can be taken literally except the way people feel. It’s like magical realism without the realism. Both female characters feel a bit impenetrable—it’s hard to get a sense of what they’re thinking, while the boys wear their hearts on their sleeves. But the play does resonate on an emotional level, and the ending is touching, bittersweet and really creepy at the same time. It certainly piques my curiosity to see the last installment this August, The Nature Line, and get a better sense of what threads tie the three together.

Into the Clear Blue Sky runs through April 30 at the Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason St., San Francisco.http://sleepwalkerstheatre.com