MPAACT. By Gloria Bond Clunie. Dir. Chuck Smith. With Quinton Guyton, Darren Jones, Shannon Matesky, Kelly Owens. 1hr 45mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Oliver Sava
Dr. Alexandra Seabold (Kelly Owens) and her husband Terry (Quinton Guyton) have just finished paying off all their student loans and outstanding debts, so Terry decides the two should save up for a commercial flight into space, newly offered by Galaxy, Inc. for the low price of $250,000 a person. The opening scene of Gloria Bond Clunie’s new drama appears to be set in the future, showing a couple discussing the potential of flying into space while a bright starscape shines outside their window, suggesting that Alexandra and Terry either have digital wallpaper or their home is built on a very strange angle. But Quark isn’t set in the future. It’s just ludicrous and deadly serious about it, attempting to tell a sprawling story about love and cancer and the cosmos—a story that completely falls apart when put under scrutiny.
To start, how in the world do a kindergarten teacher and university professor have the kind of money to spend on two commercial trips to space? Even with the multi-year plan devised by Terry, it’s completely unrealistic. It becomes even more absurd after Alexandra’s cancer returns but Clunie keeps on trying to sell the cosmic flight until the very end, a thread that ultimately pays off with a groaningly obvious mash-up of “Space Oddity” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” The much larger problem with the trip is how it turns these two characters into hypocrites for even considering it.
Two cancer survivors who met in treatment and have been married for 14 years, Alexandra and Terry are people who spend summers in Niger, working with their doctor friend in a makeshift clinic to heal the sick and feed starving children. Alexandra even teaches a class on Physics for the Modern World that apparently focuses on how physics relates to those starving children, specifically an emaciated young girl whose pictures she displays on her desk, shining a spotlight on suffering so she can get charitable donations from her students. In fact, fundraising is 20% of her students’ grades, because raising money to stop starvation in Africa is definitely the first thing an introductory physics course should be focused on.
You know what would go a long way in helping ease the suffering of that little girl? $250,000. The couple is racked with guilt over not adopting the girl in the picture and leaving her to an unknown fate, but they could spend that space fund money to find her, adopt her, and make a home for her. Alexandra spends so much time lecturing her student Brian (Shannon Matesky) after class about social obligation and understanding how everyone is connected, but when it’s her time to act, she'd rather live with some guilt and throw her money into space. It's just hard to swallow, and it’s hard to believe this play made it through two workshops (first at Fox Valley Rep, then the Goodman Theatre) without fixing this huge character inconsistency.
A resident director at the Goodman, Chuck Smith has his actors playing for a much bigger house than the cozy Greenhouse space, resulting in exaggerated performances from an ensemble that's always cheated out to face the audience. It’s a small space. Everyone will be heard. This is a cast full of strong actors—we named Owens a TOC Performer of the Week for her raw performance in UrbanTheater’s Fucking A—but their talent is buried under broad direction and bloated dialogue that struggles to make sense of a nonsensical plot.
When the script jumps back 14 years to show Alexandra and Terry’s first meeting in the hospital, there are no physical or vocal changes to reflect their considerably different health situation, and Alexandra’s present-day cancer stays similarly hidden. The circumstances aren’t fully embodied by the actors, so it’s impossible to connect to the story. That superficiality runs through the entire production, preventing the emotional life of these characters from fully forming and constantly reminding the audience that what we're watching is fake.