“Sway Me, Moon,” the debut play from Alaska poet Arlitia Jones, tells the story of a demolition crewman struggling to balance taking care of his aging mother and the weight of a crumbling world.
But it’s not all grimness and grit; Dean Martin makes a few cameos.
The story centers on Angel (Dean Williams) and his mother, Dolly (Linda Benson). Dolly is rarely coherent due to an unnamed affliction, suggestive of Alzheimer’s, and Angel is rarely optimistic. Between removing rubble from the site of a nonspecific terrorist-attacked build sing and ensuring his mother stays away from the stove, Angel has become pessimistic and despondent.
Dolly, on the other hand, despite believing she was once married to Dean Martin, is plucky and content. Benson performs dementia in a way that’s as comic as it is tragic, allowing the audience to laugh at the absurdity of some of her actions and simultaneously stew in the sorrow her character evokes. Benson acts in a whole different league than the rest of the “Sway Me, Moon” cast, but she’s careful not to blatantly upstage any one performer. Her scenes with Frank Delaney, playing the ghost of Dean Martin, are as saccharine as they are sincere. As the two of them dance the night away, Dolly all but forgets the fact that her real husband was an abusive alcoholic who died several years earlier of lung cancer.
While Dolly tries not to burn down the house, Angel attempts to keep their deranged neighbor, Verita Ramos (Dana Fahrney), from reporting Dolly’s dancing to the cops. To old Verita, who lost her only son in the recent terrorist attack, any noise seems to “destroy the peace.” Verita is Cuban, and two-thirds of her dialogue is in Spanish, adding to her character’s frantic, crazy demeanor. However, Fahrney’s delivery was noticeably sluggish at times, destroying all believability. She sounded like an American woman who’d learned a few key words and phrases like “Cabron de loco! El Diablos!” and spewed them bitterly with inconsistent pronunciation at her unsuspecting neighbors. That said, Fahrney’s English delivery was spot-on, her behavior fierce and hilarious.
Williams’ portrayal of the tired, cynical Angel got off to a shaky start. A few flubbed lines here and there weren’t as noticeable as his inability to commit through the first three scenes. Williams was only following the theme of the opening night’s performance, I suppose. Inconsistency was rather abundant, though by the second act, most wrinkles had been smoothed out, thanks to the introduction of the character Raizy (Lacey Ruskin). She is the only character who manages to be down-to-earth and not wallow in self-pity. Ruskin was a brilliant casting choice for director Schatzie Schaefers. Every sales pitch for beauty supplies and not-so-subtle come-ons to Angel was fully realized. Ruskin nailed the role.
The small stage at Out North seemed a perfect fit for a play with five cast members and virtually no set changes. Every scene plays out in Angel and Dolly’s front yard, with Verita’s adjacent yard occupying a small corner of the stage. The set is only a few feet from the first row and at floor level, creating an intimate interaction that the audience seemed to respond to.
Arlitia Jones’ script, while rather obviously her first, shows few signs of inexperience. The characters are wonderfully developed and engaging, and Jones manages to touch on a few themes that are rarely discussed in theater. If only some of her more ethereal dialogue didn’t come off so cheesy and clichéd – the last line of the play comes to mind. That said, her characters have the depth of one of screenwriter Wes Anderson’s characters. They all seem remarkably real, but are just interesting enough for the audience to keep listening to what they have to say.
“Sway Me, Moon” wisely chooses not to disclose information about the terrorist attack Angel is working to clean up. The play keeps the focus on the more broad sense of fear and insecurity of civilized man, thanks to Benson’s ability to sell Dolly as oblivious to the world’s problems. She confuses Angel’s job of demolition with “destruction” and frequently asks, “Why do they build these buildings if they’re just going to knock them down?” Her plain view can be heartbreaking. Schaefers’ direction and Jones’ screenplay collide to create a bittersweet story that comments articulately on the times.
But the mood of “Sway Me, Moon” is best described by listening to Paul Anka’s lounge cover of Survivor’s classic “Eye of the Tiger,” which was playing over the house loudspeakers before the play started. The juxtaposition of a cheesy ’80s power ballad and a Frank Sinatra croon makes the listener a tad uneasy, but it’s sure to put a wry smile on a theatergoer’s face.
“Sway Me, Moon” plays at Out North from Feb. 1-17 (no show on Feb. 3). Show times are Friday-Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m. There will be a special Valentine’s Day show on Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.outnorth.org.