By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
To use the play's astronomical frame of reference, Louise, Buck, Rita, and Trisha all orbit around Donny like lesser moons around a distant planet. He is the center of his own universe, and no one else really makes a dent in his consciousness. We learn that Donny has given up a successful career designing landscapes from his attic office. His specialty was designing formations of plants on the ground which mirrored constellations of stars above. At one site trees were planted in the shape of Orion, and so on.
Never mind whether there's actually a market for this stuff. The reason Donny gives for his loss of interest in work is an ambiguous explanation about the need to be transported and the disappointment he feels when he has to return, as it were, to mundane day-to-day existence. Clinical depression is never mentioned as an underlying source for Donny's malaise. Nor does financial support of his family become a factor in his decision to put away his drawing pencils. But one day, he holes himself up in the attic, sits under the sky light in an old recliner, and gets ready to watch the night sky and commit the explosive act that will transport him out of this world.
How does he turn back time? When Trisha arrives, just as he's locking himself up in his retreat, Donny mentions something called "Hamlet's salt mill," a creaky legend that has nothing to do with Shakespeare's Hamlet and postulates that, in certain circumstances, time can be made to go backwards. I won't give anything away by reporting that Donny apparently makes this idea work. The big mystery isn't how this guy moves into his parallel universe, but why. It's difficult to care about a man whose dissatisfaction is tethered to something we can't understand. I never knew what was at stake for him. Why does Donny, having moved into a reality that's the mirror image of the one he left, still make the same inexplicable life choice he did in the first universe?
Dietz, a playwright with a number of respectable productions under his belt (his two best-known plays are God's Country and the children's drama Still Life With Iris), never provides satisfactory answers to these issues. Oddly enough, given that the nature of time is one of his themes, Dietz hasn't really given Donny a past. Oh, he provides some details, such as Donny's favorite record album and the kind of car he drives. But we don't know nearly enough to feel for this man, who's reached a critical juncture in his life. Even if we did, I'm not sure we'd be patient with the speeches Dietz puts in his characters' mouths. "Travel further. Dig deeper. Risk more," Trisha patly advises her elders.
A more interesting life juncture is that of Julie Cinilia, the actress playing Trisha, who is a West Palm beach native and a high school sophomore making her professional debut. She's an appealing actress and quite talented, able to portray an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl and her parallel-universe counterpart, a sixteen-year-old who's actually older than her parents. Also new to Florida Stage is Sara Morsey, who gives a warm and engaging performance as Rita. Here's hoping we see more of both actresses soon. The rest of the cast -- Leonard, Traber Burns, and Karen Stephens -- are Florida Stage alumni who deliver thoughtful, well-crafted performances.
In addition the Florida Stage production is one of the loveliest I've seen. Richard Crowell's well-appointed set and lighting design (which, at one point, puts an entire galaxy of stars on the back wall and ceiling of the theater) and David Pair's sound design give Rocket Man a look and feel that, while it can't take Donny into the stratosphere he needs to reach to be in a better play, still provides an atmosphere that's not a bad place in which to spend time.
Rocket Man, written by Steven Dietz. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. With Dan Leonard, Traber Burns, Julie Cinilia, Sara Morsey, and Karen Stephens. Through January 17, 1999. Through January 17. Florida Stage, Plaza del Mar, 262 S Ocean Blvd, Manalapan, 800-514-3837.