Tabloid newspapers and "Celebrity Rehab" aside, most of us rarely get an up close and personal look at drug addiction (or extreme poverty). And even more rarely do we see it treated on-stage with sensitivity and compassion.
But Gabriel Jason Dean’s pseudo-autobiographical "Qualities of Starlight," playing now through June 15at the Vortex, offers a heartbreaking portrait of addiction and homecoming that invigorates an otherwise conventional four-person family drama. Where many contemporary plays seem to throw in extreme dysfunction more for shock value than an honest depiction of American tragedy, Dean’s play and the exceptional performances of this production’s cast cultivate a verisimilitude that can’t be overlooked.
Under the skillful direction of Rudy Ramirez, Jennifer Underwood and Dennis Bailey (Rose and Junior Turner) are not only believably downtrodden and addicted, but also deserving of empathy for doing the best they could with what they had. As the uneducated and abusive patriarch, Bailey garners both our disgust and compassion – no easy task.
Similarly, Underwood offers moments of psychosis and clarity that will bring a tear to your eye.
Toby Minor and Andreá Smith play the young couple (Theodore and Polly Turner) returning to Theo’s childhood home for the first time. Ashamed of his roots and struggling with infertility, Theo’s journey home is fraught well before he discovers his parents’ drug problem.
Toby Minor offers a stand-out performance as the struggling astronomer with welfare parents, and Andreá Smith’s sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a barren mother makes the relationship work.
Ann Marie Gordon’s set pulls us into a house so cluttered and ramshackle it would send a neat freak into panic attacks, and Helen Parish’s prop design is commendable. The play requires a full-size deer carcass that serves nicely to further the exposition (even if any latent symbolism was lost on us).
In terms of construction, the pacing of the first half is a bit choppy when the climax comes later than we might expect. And with the second act opening on a tweeked-out and panicky Theo, the shift in tone is abrupt and difficult to stomach when some of the audience finds his life-threatening drug trip hilarious.
A truly top-notch production, "Qualities of Starlight’s" only major failing stems from its being touted as "a twisted comedy." While Dean’s script relieves tension through laughter in a number of places (and we’re grateful for these moments), there’s nothing particularly funny about addiction or this story.
"Qualities of Starlight" continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through June 15. Tickets $15-25, 2-for-1 admission with donation of 2 canned goods on Thursdays and Sundays. www.vortexrep.org