The good news about “Sojourn,” which just had its world premiere at The Pear Theatre in Mountain View, is that it has a really good, five-person cast.
The bad news is that the play itself, by local writer and Pear regular Evan Kokkila-Schumacher, is a mess. It has a very dramatic and rewarding first act, then collapses in the second act like a child’s tower built with mismatched Erector set pieces, Tinker Toys, LEGO bricks and Lincoln Logs.
But, back to the cast. The two principals, Laura Domingo as Deanna and Drew Benjamin Jones as Nick, play two astronauts who’ve been sent on a mission from which there can be no return.
When the show starts, they are five-and-a-half years into their trip, and are nearly to Saturn, which is getting larger and larger in the screen that shows them — and us — where they are in space. When Saturn is huge on their screen, they launch three robotic “seekers” that are to explore some of Saturn’s moons. Two of the three work.
And then it’s on, past Saturn at a ridiculous (though realistic) speed, deeper into limitless space, their only mission now to survive — and to eventually start the incubators that will bring to life the 1,000 human embryos carried in their $300 billion spaceship.
Domingo and Jones are excellent. Both are powerful and clearly committed to their roles. Like any other domestic couple not entirely happy with each other, they argue. They also try to help each other, with little success, in dealing with the sadness caused by knowing they will never meet another human — other than the embryos.
Why not just open the airlock and end it all?
Well, they are both dedicated to the mission.
“At some point, Nick,” says Deanna, “you have to make peace with the choices you have made.”
Also on hand — on Earth, at a NASA facility — are Melissa Jones as NASA communicator Marta, Richard Holman as mission commander Garett and Cynthia Lagodzinski as a NASA administrator, Kaitlyn.
They’re all very good, and intense, although it’s easier to like Jones and Holman, because they seem to really care about the astronauts. Lagodzinski has the nasty duty of having to play a ladder-climbing, manipulative creep who only cares about her career. It’s all we can do to not hiss and jeer when she’s on stage. But it’s just a role!
There is a dramatic reveal at the end of Act I, which I don’t want to give away here, but that makes for a strong, if rather confusing moment.
Act II gets lost in a morass of subplots and character studies. Garett is carrying the guilt of a previous NASA mission he’d overseen, in which six astronauts died. Marta, meanwhile, is trying to help him, and help the people in the spaceship. Kaitlyn is doing her best to keep her career on the right path, even if it means ruining a lot of lives.
What is happening with Nick and Deanna is the best part of Act II, so we tend to be grateful when they dominate the set, rather than the soap opera back at NASA.
“You don’t choose the ghosts that haunt you,” Deanna says, “but you don’t have to do everything they tell you to do.”
Director Caroline Clark always does very good work, and she certainly gets fine performances from her cast. It’s really a pleasure to watch these committed performers work, especially Jones and Domingo.
Ting-Na Wang’s set is simple but fun to look at, in a way that sort of brings the original, cheapo-cheapo “Star Trek” TV sets to mind. It has a couple of smallish control panels, and a little vertical garden that presumably represents space-based agriculture. And not much else. No dials, switches, or gear drawers. Just lots of blank wall space and a door or two. Not remotely realistic, even for something that’s supposed to be happening in 2062. Even in that distant time, NASA will want to use every possible square inch of space for something.
Lighting designer Ben Hemmen gives us prettily underlit decks, although they do a lot of flickering. Sound designer Charlie Hoyt gives us deep, rumbling background noise that helps create a sense of danger. And other space-shippy noises.
John Beamer’s video designs are practically a character in the play, switching between a lovely inside bulkhead in the ship to scenes of Saturn growing closer, then disappearing amid the stars.
Kokkila-Schumacher might have done better to write this story as a novel rather than as a play. Then, maybe, he could have told all his stories in compelling ways. As it is, he seems to be trying to throw in every emotional and science-fiction kind of twist he can, but the structure of a play makes that not work well.
A play needs to be focused, moving itself and its audience to a defined goal. “Sojourn” has too many conflicts heading off into undefined places.
Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.
When: Through April 7; performance times vary.
Info: The Pear.