For those of you between the ages of 28 to 30, prepare to die. Or at least begin another “life cycle.”
Noah Haidle’s inspiration for the bittersweet drama Saturn Returns—Theatre Exile’s season closer—is the astrological curiosity known as “A Saturn Return,” which refers to the moment when the planet returns to the precise place in the cosmos that it occupied the day you were born. The phenomenon occurs every 28 to 30 years, and some believe that it instigates a disruption in the person’s life cycle. So, if you believe in such things, the 28-to-30 age range represents a time of endings and beginnings as your first life cycle concludes and another begins.
In Haidle’s elegantly structured play, we meet a man named Gustin on three days during three different periods of his life, beginning when he is an elderly man of 88 (Harry Philibosian). Gustin is in marvelous health, and it is for companionship alone that he employs a daily health-care worker named Suzanne (Amanda Schoonover) to keep him company. Through their conversations we learn about Gustin’s troubled past, which includes the death of his daughter Zephyr (Schoonover, who also plays Gustin’s wife Loretta), who tragically drowned while vacationing in Mexico years ago.
The next time we meet Gustin he is a 58 year old man (played by Joe Canuso, Theatre Exile’s artistic director). He is widowed, and Zephyr (who is leaving the next day for that fateful trip to Mexico) is harassing him to go out on a date. “What do I need other people for?” Gustin asks. Still aching from the death of his wife decades earlier, he is unwilling to risk another romantic entanglement. Besides, he thinks, he’ll always have Zephyr for company.
When we finally meet the 28 year-old Gustin (David Raphaely), the year is 1951. He is young, good-looking, married and life appears filled with promise. Later that night, Zephyr will be conceived. But unbeknownst to Gustin, the birth of his daughter will come at a tremendous cost. In this strange and compelling play, happiness is short-lived and no sorrow is ever forgotten.
The plot, at times, feels contrived; Haidle often withholds information for no other reason than to keep us interested. But Brenna Geffers directs with a deft hand and her production strikes the proper tone of melancholy. The play is also cast well. Because three actors portray one character at different stages of life, it is paramount that they bear some physical resemblance. Canuso, Philibosian and Raphaely aren’t carbon copies of each other physically, but they are so adept at mimicking each other’s gestures, vocal patterns and inflections that when they stand side by side, the “family” resemblance is eerie. All give strong performances, but Philibosian, now 76, is in a league of his own.
Ultimately, it’s not the events in Gustin’s life that make Saturn linger in our memory. It’s the play’s ability to capture the pain associated with loss and the sense of despair that loneliness brings. “No matter how much you cry there is no end to the tears,” the elder Gustin tells Suzanne, and it is clear he remains haunted by ancient regrets and thoughts of what might have been. Yet the play is not unbearably sad. The finest scene in the production is a tender moment when Gustin (who is a doctor) stitches a bad cut on Suzanne’s hand with his home sewing kit. She hugs him—and it becomes clear that he hasn’t been hugged in years (Philibosian is a master at playing the quiet, unassuming moments). The play is a reminder that as long as we have one person to live for, life—despite its pain and hardships—remains worth living.
Through May 22. $18-$40. Christ Church Neighborhood House. 20 N. American St. 215.218.4022.
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