Night Falls on the Blue Planet

by John Stoltenberg

Kathleen Akerley’s Night Falls on the Blue Planet is a rapturously funny and brainy comedy about a woman named Renee who is losing her mind and finding her body. (Or something like that. It’s complicated.)

In Act Two there comes a comic monolog so gut-bustingly, jaw-droppingly brazen that last night it stopped the show. Kerri Rambow playing Annette, Renee’s elder sister, delivers the speech seated on a chair as if in a restroom stall. Pissed because another woman has had the temerity to take a poop in the stall right next to hers—even though all the others are wide open!—Annette takes off on a potty-mouthed rant that, in Rambow’s supremely gifted performance, was one of the most  hilarious schticks I’ve seen on stage.

The fact that this sidesplitting episode takes place in a women’s room in a play during the Women’s Voices Theater Festival is just…too perfect. And that’s a tip-off to how delightfully felicitous is this whole show.

Renee (played with passion and grace by Jeanne Dillon-Williams) is not doing at all well. Her ex has custody of her son, whom she feels she has failed as a mom. She goes through whiskey by the bottle. Her life is a hot mess. Renee has come to stay with her younger sister, Holly (played with exquisitely empathic comic timing by Natalie Cutcher), who is rightly alarmed about Renee’s well-being and offers her a gift of deep-tissue massage to work out the stress of said mess.

Little do Holly or Renee (or we) know what message that massage will bring. Increasingly, as Renee goes back for more and more sessions—her masseuse, Claudia (Amanda Haddock-Duchemin), offers her a bulk rate—Renee’s reality is altered. The first time this happens, there is a dramatic change in lighting (design by John Burkland) and lovely/eerie music (original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis), and we see Renee facing us downstage center enacting the experience of being massaged while Claudia, upstage facing the back wall of the set, performs the massage. Under Rex Daughterty’s astute direction, the writing, the performing, and the stagecraft converge to become a metaphorical passageway into a phenomenal other world where Renee has gone and the play is about to take us.

Thereafter the play moves back and forth between the real and the surreal, and as that other world unfolds, Renee’s body  becomes the canvas for a painting that depicts (in her mind) the landscape and seascape of her inner aspiration to escape her pain and trauma. For Renee, the massages permit her to realize and own that there is something more concrete about her body than her mind, and indeed her body makes more sense. “My heart has lasted longer than any of my ideas,” she tells Holly. Renee even books a yoga instructor, Daniel (Peter Finnegan), who happens to be an artist and who assists Renee by body-painting her where she cannot reach.

For her part Holly wants only to help and be supportive. She gets that Renee “is trying to find out what’s in her” but “she’s going somewhere weird.” She tries to get through to Renee, whose body keeps showing up with more and more paint on it. To Renee the paint represents images of the natural world that are analog to her true inner self, but to Holly it’s only more cause for alarm. (Kelsey Hunt designed not only the costumes but the body painting.) “This is no different than a midlife crisis,” Holly tells Renee; “this is just way prettier.”

In a beautifully expressive pas de deux between Haddock-Duchemin and Dillon-Williams (choreographed by Daugherty), we see Renee literally lifted aloft to imagined freedom on the strength of her masseuse.

As Renee journeys further into her imagined world, the reality-based set (designed by Paige Hathaway) transforms into an abstract painting, and Holly’s fear for Renee increases. Uncomfortable about the attention Holly sees Daniel giving her sister’s barely clothed body, Helen warns Renee that he appears to be objectifying her. “Well, right now I’m an object,” Renee retorts, in a stunning/shocking Act One closer.

In hopes of saving Renee from herself (a rescue Renee defiantly does not want), Holly asks their older sister, Annette—with whom Holly is on good terms but Renee is on the outs—to pay a visit. Annette’s entrance in Act Two is hysterically funny in a way you have to see to believe. Suffice it to say that Renee has engaged Daniel, Claudia, and Holly to participate in a playlet Renee has written and they are playing along in hopes of humoring/healing her—and so it is that Annette comes to play-act the aforementioned biffy bit.

On one hand Night Falls on the Blue Planet is a three-sisters play that I doubt any dude could have done. The dramas among Renee, Holly, and Annette have a real-life brittle edge, even as played here for laughs, and Williams’s, Cutcher’s, and Rambow’s portrayals of those comic/turgid tensions are a thrill to behold.

On another hand Night Falls on the Blue Planet is a masterful meditation on the internal and external verities of a woman’s life. Akerley has got to be one of the most brilliant thinkers writing for the American stage, but her work (I think she would concede) has sometimes verged on the cerebral in a way that can leave audiences behind.  Not so with Night Falls, though; no way. This is a crowd-pleaser plus. A light entertainment with deep thoughts. Its script is structured to shift episodically into an alternate world in a way that opens for Akerley a clown-carful of story-grounded opportunities to let loose her signature rich poetic diction—which in Night Falls on the Blue Planet becomes sweeping in meaning.

Is Renee really losing her mind? or is she really finding herself (“the me who is me”) in her own body on her own terms?

In Theater Alliance’s world-premiere staging at Anacostia Playhouse, Night Falls on the Blue Planet catapults to the top tier of Women’s Voices Theater Festival must-sees and must-think-abouts.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Night Falls on the Blue Planet plays through September 27, 2015 at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.