'Rocket Man' helps launch new season, new features for Colonial Players

  • Ben Carr, clutching his pedestrian walk button box, is surrounded by other "Rocket Man" cast members Laura Gayvert, Shirley Panek, Paige Miller and Tim Sayles. "Rocket Man," runs Sept. 5-27 at Colonial Players theater in Annapolis.
Ben Carr, clutching his pedestrian walk button box, is surrounded… (Colburn Images, Baltimore…)
September 12, 2014|By Mary Johnson | For The Baltimore Sun

Colonial Players is not only launching its new season with its current production of "Rocket Man" but has also flipped the switch on impressive new staging technology that gives this show a distinctive touch of flash.

The show by Steven Dietz relates the adventures of a protagonist in his mid-40s who transcends oppressive boundaries for a second chance at a better life.

But the audience, too, blasts off into a season that celebrates Colonial's improved facilities, including a new lighting grid and instruments producing spectacular new effects.

At the recent opening night, Colonial president Darice Clewell described the upgrades as a labor of love for the volunteers who made them possible; then she invited those same volunteers onto the stage for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that launched the troupe's 66th season on a celebratory note.

At the end of the show's Act 1, the audience saw what the fuss was about: a fabulous display of laser lights that blast the hero off into his new life while bringing the audience along on the adventure.

Perhaps because this is director Scott Nichols' first mainstage production, Dietz's serious comedy has a fresh quality and a true sense of discovery in its scenes of a life unveiled.

From the first action we seem to be witnessing events in real time. Each actor in this uniformly excellent cast of five conveys discovery and spontaneity in every line of dialogue.

As the play opens, protagonist Donny has piled all his possessions on his lawn topped with a sign reading "Here's My Life — Make an Offer," indicating a nadir from which improvement may emerge.

Donny's teenage daughter, Trisha, his ex-wife, Rita, and friends Buck and Louise are confused by his actions, but Donny is determined to move beyond his lost opportunities.

Ben Carr's performance as Donny presents us with a struggling climber who has nothing left to hold onto, yet who views his descent as a launching pad.

Carr reveals Donny's affection and tortured anxiety over Trisha's 16th birthday, as well as his frustrated determination to win back Rita, who is now with another man she'll likely marry.

Act 1 presents a puzzling Donny, an exasperatingly unreliable man who has failed to gain control of his family or career. In Act 2, a parallel universe transforms him into a caring husband and father, seemingly in control of his career.

As Trisha, Paige Miller's impressive performance presents a vulnerable, frequently disappointed teenager who touchingly conveys her love for her unreliable father and respectful affection for her mother. In Act 2, Miller creates a capable young woman effectively dealing with all challenges in the parallel universe.

As Rita, Laura Gayvert portrays a conflicted ex-wife concerned about Donny's disintegrating life, yet uninterested in his career as an architect. Rita is especially distressed at Donny's inability to remember his daughter's milestone 16th birthday. Gayvert's Rita is in firm control of her emotions and a life that no longer includes Donny; but in Act 2, she becomes Donny's loving and dependent partner.

Shirley Panek delivers another memorable Colonial Players portrayal as the insomniac Louise. She's Donny's devoted and caring friend, compassionate and funny as she tries to lift him from hopeless gloom and determined to help him resume his career in Act 1. Panek's Louise seems less weary as she continues to brighten Act 2.

Donny's longtime friend Buck is played by Timothy Sayles, who adroitly delivers quips to lighten Donny's mood in hopes of lifting him from his funk. Buck continues to offer steady humorous relief in the parallel universe of Act 2.

Despite these excellent performances, Colonial's season opener leaves one somewhat mystified. Playwright Dietz's "Rocket Man" is undeniably clever and original in premise, but challenging for those sorting out the parallel universe found in Act 2.

Here, growing younger is feared — the end arrives at birth — and our children are ancestors who become increasingly dependent as they grow younger and more helpless. This new realm is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Yet the most fun is getting there, with Colonial Players' stage and audience covered in the starry luminescence.

The production continues weekends Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 27 at Colonial Players, 108 East Street, Annapolis. Tickets can be ordered by calling the box office at 410-268-7373.

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