It has been said, repeatedly, that you “can’t go home again.”
Except, of course, you can, and we often do. Whatever that home may be – a person, a house, a landscape – we’re bound to return, whether it be on a holiday, a vacation, to clear the attic because the house is getting sold, or (as it happens in Sundown, Yellow Moon, a world premiere co-production between Ars Nova and the Women’s Project) just to make sure dad’s doing okay, given the circumstances. Upon our return, we will likely find a place that seems both entirely the same and totally foreign.
There aren’t many feelings that are so counter-intuitive. What should feel nostalgic becomes vaguely threatening. Age, from which we are mostly able to hide on a daily basis, suddenly catches our eye; we stare into it, feeling the future fall away and the past rush in. We temporarily stock the fridge with the brand of beer we like to drink now. How is it possible that we once lived here? How is it possible that we’ve ever lived anywhere else?
Rachel Bonds’ new play, described as a “nighttime play with songs,” is both an evocation and unpacking of the unsettling sensation of returning to a childhood home to check up on the aging parent who has remained. Two fraternal twin daughters, Joey (Eboni Booth) and Ray (Lilli Cooper), are visiting their father Tom (a perfectly cast Peter Friedman) in some unnamed college town in Tennessee where they grew up.
The return home is necessary because their father has been suspended for an incident at the school where he teaches, which they will later learn involved a profanity-laced temper tantrum directed at the new headmaster (referred to as a “right-wing asshole”) that culminated in his (accidentally?) striking a fellow teacher and causing a minor but significant-enough injury. And, of course, being home isn’t just about dad. What’s past for those who left town is still present for those who remain, and a pair of encounters creates secondary drama that complicates the visit.
For Ray, it’s running into her father’s counsellor, Carver. Ray was a seventh-grader when Carver was a senior, and she enthusiastically describes to him a vivid life-changing moment she experienced while listening to him play in his high school rock/folk group – a group that he has since left under mysterious circumstances and who have gone on to legitimate success (think, like, Fleet Foxes). Played with a slow drawl and puppy-dog charm by JD Taylor, Carver seems to trigger something in Ray – it’s hard for her to balance her memory of this person, who must have been an inspiration for her and her fledgling songwriting career, with the played-out bitter reality of his rather mundane continuing existence. No one falls harder than the heroes of high school.
For Joey, the past appears as a poet named Ted (played by Greg Keller), whom she encounters in the middle of the night while swimming in a reservoir near her father’s house. Understandably flattered by her remembering him (and one of his poems) from a reading that he did when she was a high school senior, and despite his having a wife (who is on a book tour, and he’s…not), they strike up a flirtatious friendship that threatens to become something more dangerous for each of them.
Sundown, Yellow Moon, delicately directed by Anne Kauffman, is a softly-glowing night-light of a narrative, a beacon of memory illuminating a forgotten childhood hallway. The songs, which are by The Bengsons with additional lyrics by Rachel Bonds, are integrated intelligently into the dramatic structure by means of a late-night jam session with some of Tom’s teacher buddies, and by Ray’s prodding of Carver to play that one song that she remembers so well. The play repeatedly returns to a theme of incompletion, of the emotional state of watching something slip through your fingertips. Whether literal (Tom doesn’t know if his career will fall apart or not), or more on a metaphorical level (Ray can’t write a new song, Ted can’t finish a poem, Joey’s not sure if she can actually handle leaving on a Fulbright scholarship), each character receives a well-developed set-up which invites us into their personal experience of this particular, but nameless lost feeling. The beautiful set design (by Lauren Helpern) and evocative lighting (Isabella Byrd and Matt Frey) keep us firmly rooted in a southern-feeling space that is somehow both cozy and menacing.
The play also feels a bit more like a first act than complete gesture – the exposition is so carefully set in place and well crafted that it is a bit startling when the play ends without really knocking down anything that it set up for us. The major event that allows the drama to shift into second act mode and make its way to a conclusion also feels peripheral to the play’s more meaningful emotional core, namely the touching and disturbing sensation of confronting a parent from a new position (that of an adult, but only just so, still bruised and shaking from the trauma of having grown up at all).
But as the characters demonstrate, maybe that sensation of incompletion shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We will always return home to find something missing. Sundown, Yellow Moon immerses us (and itself) in that terrifying yet enticing dive into the murky memory of the place from whence we came.