Heller Theatre opened its second play of the season, Rocket Man by Steven Dietz, last Thursday evening. I was excited to see it after last season's excellent showing of Inventing Van Gogh by the same playwright, for which director (and artistic director for both Heller and Clark Theatres) assembled a stellar cast.
Tattershall, in her direction of Rocket Man, once again gathered together a few of Tulsa's finest actors for a performance that did not disappoint.
Rocket Man opens with Donny (Starr Hardgrove) entering his attic, a place that used to house his dreams of becoming a landscape designer but is now cluttered with boxes, remnants of his life and an old traffic light. He plops a box onto a card table and relates what, we can assume, has made up most of his life for at least the past few months.
Donny is a man who has spent more than his fair share of hours standing at a traffic light, relentlessly pushing that little button that is supposed to make the light change and free him to safely cross the street. One day, exasperated by what he sees as the futility of repeatedly pressing a button and waiting for the light to change, he pries the little box off the light post and opens it up. Nothing. Just a "lone button attached to the finger of a stupid pedestrian."
"We demand the illusion of involvement," Donny nearly yells. "Just give me a button. As long as we have a button to push, then we think we can change something.
"But the light changes all on its own."
Donny has given up.
He's boxing every tangible aspect of his life and laying it all out on his lawn downstairs. His life is for sale. Make an offer.
His friend Buck (Charles Whitson) enters, and Donny explains that, since he and his wife divorced, he's been losing days, weeks. He's lost track of time and it's taking years off his life--a life littered with things. He finds out later he's even missed his daughter Trisha's (Julia Mills) 16th birthday. He's unhappy with his life, disappointedly counting all of the things he never did.
He tells Buck and Trisha, his ex-wife Rita (Susan Apker) and his friend and potential soul mate Louise (Miriam Mills) that he's going on a trip, traveling to a place where he won't need things. And, he's become very, very interested in astronomy all of a sudden. He's making his friends and family nervous. He's tying up loose ends.
The second act still takes place in the attic, but in an alternate universe where time moves backwards. Instead of growing old, you grow young. Instead of being born to parents you didn't choose, you go in search for the two people you want to raise you. And, you know when you will die.
And in this world, Donny and his wife are still together and, it seems, happily so. They are preparing to celebrate Trisha's 16th birthday, where, instead of getting a new car or earning the privilege to drive, she will give up her car keys and her license.
One thing is the same in this world, though. Donny has stopped working. He's given up on his dreams of landscape design because he's found that, when he was working, he would lose track of the hours, days, weeks.
And in between the activities of the day in this alternate world, each character takes turns describing what happened, what he or she experienced, after Donny left for his trip.
In the end, Donny makes the same decision in this world as he did in his own, and, afterwards, his friends and family gather together to mourn their loss and try to understand their friend.
There are moments of sentimentality, but they are well played. They do not overshadow the dry wit and sarcasm that make the play darkly humorous. And while, at first glance, the story seems a sad one, it is much more than that.
Dietz has said that "Rocket Man is the story of a man determined to transcend the boundaries of his life, determined to be granted that elusive 'second chance.' To do so, he must investigate what Camus called 'this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.'
"There is no telling what he will find there. For, if our regrets are daunting, so too are the consequences of our actions. Knowingly or not, we affect the world with our every breath."
Dietz's writing is phenomenal, and the cast does it justice with its performance. Tattershall's directing ensures the pace is quick but that appropriate time is given to the moments that require it.
Hardgrove and Whitson are naturals, and their performances seem effortless as they nearly become their characters. Julia, Miriam and Apker gave fine performances as well. I was troubled at first by what I saw as a rather glaring difference of age between Hardgrove and Apker and found it at first hard to believe that the two could have been a couple. It is evident, though, later as the play wears on. You get the sense that Donny may be quite less mature than his ex-wife, and he does seem to age as the play moves forward and he becomes wearier. Also, in the second act, Apker really does seem younger as the mood lightens slightly and she and Donny seem almost happy.
Though the story may seem sad at first, it is actually an uplifting tale of the human spirit and its capabilities.
Rocket Man continues at Heller, 5328 S. Wheeling, Thurs., Nov. 15 through Sunday, Nov. 18. All performances are at 8pm except for Sunday's matinee, which begins at 2pm. Tickets are $8. Call 746-5065 for more information and reservations.
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