The past can take us unawares. It might be something like Proust's famous cookie that suddenly plunges us back into lives we long ago packed away. It could be more direct, like the chance meeting that occurs at the start of the bittersweet Steven Dietz comedy "Shooting Star" currently onstage at Everyman Theatre.
Elena Carson and Reed McAllister were lovers back in the '70s before going their separate ways. Now pushing 50, they find themselves at the same airport one day in 2006, just as a snowstorm is gradually grounding flights.
Trapped in a "purgatory of planes" while "snowflakes the size of doilies" fall outside, these two people are not exactly thrilled to be facing each other again. They don't want to "end up talking out of a shared desire to be done talking," as Reed puts it. But talk they do. And, in some often very amusing bursts of dialogue, they catch up on the trivial and the substantive alike.
She still has the same free spirit of old and is decidedly Blue State. He's more buttoned-up and, just as she suspects, "a little Red." She still tends to dismiss the upper-crust types, the "Executive Platinum Diamond Elite Preferred" guys [who] board right before the Nobel laureates. It gives them a little extra time to put their egos in the overhead bin." He, of course, carries an "Executive Platinum Diamond Elite Preferred" card.
Reed hates NPR, just as he did when he lived with Elena, but he invariably finds himself making a pledge every year. "Why would anyone do that?" Elena asks. "You can listen for free and they don't know who you are."
"Shooting Star" is part-sitcom, part-Lifetime channel movie. Clocking in at about 90 minutes, the slender work would be all the more easily adapted for the small screen; there are even clean breaks where the commercials could be placed.
Dietz, whose plays are among the most frequently produced by regional companies in this country, doesn't stick relentlessly to formula, though. He has a way of shifting direction or mood just enough to keep you from feeling smugly certain where everything is heading.
And he knows how to give his characters enough distinctive personality traits and enough genuine-sounding experiences to make them seem remarkably like — well, like people you might strike up a conversation with in an airport lounge while waiting for a delayed flight.
The Everyman production, directed fluidly by Donald Hicken, has a seasoned cast that has no difficulty adding expressive weight to the comic surface of the material.
Deborah Hazlett gives a typically incisive performance as Elena. She's funny and touching, revealing the tenderness beneath the glibness, the contradictions beneath the confidence.
In one of the play's most effective scenes, where Elena and Reed go through each other's wallets ("People's wallets don't lie," she tells him), Hazlett makes sure that the odd game becomes doubly meaningful. You can sense Elena's curiosity and fear through each wisecrack as she pulls out little pieces of Reed's life, the life he had without her.
With a road-weary (or air miles-weary) look about him, that look we've all seen when we travel, Paul Morella gives Reed an authentic voice and manner.
The actor's deft portrayal makes it easy to understand why there's still something about those years with Elena that Reed has never been able to shake, even as he shed all the other accoutrements of the '70s ("We all very happily threw away those pants").
Seating in the theater has been configured for this production on three sides of the stage, placing the audience closer into the gray waiting area that is perfectly conjured up by James Fouchard's scenic design, complete with video monitors displaying flight info and occasional ads. Announcements periodically break into the dialogue to remind passengers of the current security threat level (remember "orange"?).
The play may sometimes be as lightweight as the snow seen falling outside the airport lounge window, but this production provides more than enough interest and momentum to give "Shooting Star" a consistently entertaining shine.
If you go
"Shooting Star" runs through Feb. 20 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.