Antlia Pneumatica is a constellation, though probably not one you’ve heard of; it’s part of a set of fourteen very faint constellations named after instruments of the Age of Enlightenment: telescope, microscope, octant, and the like. (Antlia was originally called Machine Pneumatique in French, then Latinized; it means “air pump.”) It’s a faint constellation, only visible away from bright lights, and it comes with an origin story whimsical enough that it sounds like a fairy tale and yet weirdly modern and pragmatic. In short, it’s a perfect emblem for Anne Washburn’s play of the same name: a ghostly trace behind the more familiar, bolder constellations that we can see even from Los Angeles or New York; an almost forgotten story that may or may not be real, but that’s easy to believe in the dark, isolated night of a Texas Hill Country ranch; metaphorical cogs of machinery working somewhere in the depths of night.
The play is a slippery thing, happening in three different registers. Much of it is perfectly ordinary, often too ordinary – a wistful, slightly kooky domestic drama about growing up and growing apart, about the losses of adulthood and the implacability of time. But then the play slips a gear, and turns into something darker, richer, and stranger: an invocation, an act of not-so-innocent eavesdropping, a ghost story about one’s own youth.
In the ordinary present, a group of college friends have gathered for a peculiar funeral that is as much a memorial for their collective relationships as for their deceased friend Sean. Sean hadn’t updated his “When I Die” file in a long time, so it still requests that he be buried at the ranch belonging to friends he hadn’t spoken to in years. The whole group is a little brittle together, a little out of touch, almost giddy in their attempts to force a connection that barely exists any longer: sisters Nina (Annie Parisse) and Liz (April Matthis), who own the ranch though hardly ever use it anymore, Ula (Maria Striar) and Len (Nat DeWolf) and Bama (Crystal Finn) and a few more people who are there but never seen. And then Adrian (Rob Campbell), Nina’s ex-boyfriend, out of touch for sixteen years, somehow hears about the funeral and turns up. Nina is there with her kids but not her husband, and Adrian is just as magnetically strange as he ever was – and then he gets even stranger, creeping into Nina’s bedroom to watch her sleep (maybe).
Everyone is trying their hardest to get along, to make something beautiful of this event, to build new traditions on it, but it’s hard going. As Liz, perhaps the least nostalgic of them (Matthis makes her charmingly acerbic), says, “We are not [a community.] We are a reassembled memory of a community.” Their bonds are so frayed that Nina didn’t even know Ula and her husband split up several years ago. Washburn and director Ken Rus Schmoll keep the early part of the piece so carefully, studiously mild that it’s almost lulling to watch Parisse, Matthis, and Striar potter around the kitchen, bringing up memories and turning them over like worn pebbles; even when the sisters bicker, Parisse and Mathis do it with smooth familiarity. But you can almost see the hairs on Parisse’s neck rise when Adrian arrives, and the pull toward him that none of the others share; Campbell brings a tempo just the tiniest fraction of a beat different from everyone else’s. He unsettles the rhythms that the three women and Len have started to form, and the first discordant notes start to sound.
Yet there are clues all along that something more complicated is happening. First, there’s an entire line of unseen action running in counterpoint, scenes that are overheard (voices only) between Nina’s children (voiced by Skylar Dunn and Azhy Robertson but never seen); between Len and Nina’s daughter, Casey; between Nina and Adrian; between Nina, Adrian, and Casey. These scenes take on a clandestine quality by being hidden from us; we don’t know, exactly, if they’re real or imagined or dreams or memories.
And then there are little incongruities of time and space, when the piece slips into another register. There’s a discussion of another friend, Don: Ula swears he died in a gruesome and mysterious crime years ago, but Adrian told Nina he’s selling real estate in Corpus Christi. There’s a rocking chair that Nina’s husband cut up for scrap last year, but which Adrian sits in (or was that too a dream?). There’s a pecan orchard that doesn’t seem to grow. The box of Sean’s ashes seems to have a will of its own. Len spins tales of a mythologized Bachelor for Nina’s children (perhaps a slightly too literal topic for the bachelor among them, but DeWolf relishes the moment of playing at parenthood enough to make it work). Adrian keeps pulling Nina into strange dark-of-night conversations. And all of them mythologize their own past experiences at the ranch, and imagine their own epitaphs in a moment of purely beautiful poetic fancy that feels both entirely incongruous with and entirely perfect in the play.
When the final member of the group, Bama (Crystal Finn, a show-stopper in her one big late scene both by virtue of her performance and of the information she shares), arrives, it finally becomes clear what a trail all these strange breadcrumbs have drawn: the fronts they’re putting on for one another, the secrets they no longer share, the perniciousness of certain memories, their ambivalence about the friend they’ve lost. It’s genuinely eerie and unexpectedly moving when the pieces snap together. The sometimes dogged literalness of the realist surface play, with its measured reveals of anecdote and false brightness, is just a thin skin, and the shape beneath the skin is unsettling and magically strange.
Antlia Pneumatica is on until 24th April 2016. Click here for tickets.