Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Rocket Man
Theatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Familiar, Rigoletto, and Corduroy


Matt Wall and Anna Beth Baker
Photo by Charles Gorrill
Rocket Man is a play that seems to have more on its mind than it is able to deliver. Steven Dietz's 1998 drama has been given a well-produced staging by Theatre Pro Rata, offering an especially strong performance by Matt Hall as Donny, the presumptive title character.

Donny has decided to break away from his life and move on to live in another dimension. We are told at the start of the play that he has placed all of his possession on his front lawn with a sign that says, "This is my life. Make an offer," parting with every scrap of his materials good in this realm to be free to move on to another. We are not talking about suicide here, though Donny clearly does seem depressed, but about his belief that he could make his way to an alternate universe where his life would more satisfying than it is at present.

We don't see the pile of Donny's worldly goods, but rather his attic, suggested by a well-realized dormered frame (designed by Ursula K. Bowden), emptied out of most, but not quite all, the detritus of his past. A skylight framed out to face the audience is his escape hatch to exit this life for another, with the help of a telescope, some do-it-yourself electronic gadgetry, and his old La-Z-Boy chair. Donny has an affinity for the night skies. Back when he had ambitions of being a landscape architect, his designs for gardens mirrored the configuration of stars in their constellations.

In addition to being thwarted as a landscape architect, Donny bears the disappointment of being left by his wife Rita and his frayed relationship with his 16-year-old daughter Trisha. On a positive note, he has a true-blue loyal best friend, Buck. He has another special friend, Louise, his co-worker on the surveying team which became Donny's job. Louise and Donny had been in love, but back then he was married, and so was she. Now it is too late. Seeking change in her life too, Louise is taking night classes at a seminary, which is why Buck confides in her that he has been hearing God's voice making a strange demand on him. Buck, Louise, Trisha and Rita all are concerned about Donny's state of mind, but he seems to be completely at peace with the decision he has made. This culminates at the end of act one with a roiling storm, with excellent sound (Jacob M. Davis) and lighting (Emmet Kowler) design that creates a most dramatic midpoint.

Act two reveals the surprising outcome of Donny's gambit as well as Buck's mission from God. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that the dimension Donny finds is predicated on temporal, rather than spatial planes. In some ways, he lands in a very different universe, with the same people and the same decisions hanging over his head, so he has not so much found a new life, as a new way of sequencing life. It seems Donny doesn't remember his old life once he lands in the new, but we can see the differences as well as the similarities. The question emerges: If there are multiple dimensions, and if we can maneuver from one to another—teo highly speculative "ifs"—will it make a difference? One safe answer, in most situations, is, "it depends." If so, what does it depend on?

Dietz has created believable characters and placed them in an absurd situation. This might have worked with more thorough construction, but there are too many unknowns. To start with, what went wrong with Donny and Rita's marriage and what caused Donny to abandon his dream, two tenets that seem to be triggering his escape plot. Even more questions arise in the second act, inventive as it is, which make Donny's new existence more of a clever sketch idea than an actual outcome of the drama that preceded it. It is difficult to suspend disbelief enough to take seriously the turn of events or the shifts in relationships. The play maintains its clever and amusing sheen, but not its grip on the intellect. P>Also, in act two, the trajectory of Donny's journey is interrupted with spot-lit monologues by each of the other characters from their vantage point back in the old dimension, as they carry on with their old lives, albeit changed by Donny's absence. This seems, in theory, a way to keep both narratives moving, with a storyline for each dimension, and a well-reasoned dramatic device. But the periodic returns to Donny's old existence have the effect of further diminishing any serious consideration of his new-found life, as if turning TV channels between a heartfelt drama and a stylized dream sequence.

Director Stuart Gates manages to keep the narrative moving, in its multiple directions, keeping the audience engaged even when the prospects of a pay-off begin to feel increasingly remote. It may not be possible given the bones of the play, but the production would benefit from somehow fleshing out the premise of the second act so that the two narratives felt more of a piece.

Matt Walls does a terrific job of conveying Donny's disillusionment with his life, and his vague confidence that there is something better out there for him. He is gentle and kind to his friends and family, but too distracted by his malaise to come through for them. As Buck, Lanny Langston exudes the eager loyalty of a life-long friend, along with a goofy countenance that makes him an ideal candidate to be receiving directives from God.

As Louise, Shana Eisenberg conveys a warmth that she has had to pinch off to protect her from her feelings for Donny, and a degree of insight and empathy that make her seminary studies plausible. In the first act, Anna Beth Baker as Trisha does a good job as a stock uncommunicative teenager, trying to hold back both the hurt her dad caused her and her concern for his welfare. The premise of the second act has the most effect on her, with Trisha now having more maturity and perspective on life. I had more difficulty accepting Rachel Austin as Rita. She seems a bit young to have been Matt's ex-wife and doesn't convey a sense of having had a history with him.

Steven Dietz is among America's must successful contemporary playwrights, having had thirty-four original plays and eleven plays adapted from other sources produced between 1981 and 2016. Few of these have been seen in New York, but Dietz's work is widely produced in regional theaters. He spent most of the 1980s as a stage director at The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. His 1987 play with music, Ten November, about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior is fondly remembered and, in the past decade, three of his plays (Sherlock Holmes: the Final Adventure, Becky's New Car, and Shooting Star) have had well-received productions at Park Square Theatre.

I say all the above to credit Dietz for delivering top notch fare to our theater audiences over the years. Based on this production, Rocket Man seems not of the same caliber. And even having said that, with the shortcomings that seem inherent in the play, it prompted my companion that evening and me to have a stimulating discussion on the very issues that vexed Donny. If only I had enjoyed the play as much as the conversation that followed.

Rocket Man, through April 1, 2018, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E. Minneapolis, MN. All tickets are on a sliding scale $14.00 - $41.00, two for one on Sundays with a Minnesota Fringe Festival button. For more information and tickets call 612- 234-7135 or go to theatreprorata.org.

Writer: Steven Dietz; Director: Stuart Gates; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Samantha Kuhn Staneart ; Lighting Design: Emmet Kowler; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Madeline Achen; Stage Manager: Clara Costello.

Cast: Rachel Austin (Rita), Anna Beth Baker (Trisha), Shana Eisenberg (Louise), Lanny Langston (Buck), Matt Wall (Donny).


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