There are somethings that you cannot put into words; experiencing the joy of a world premiere is one of those things. Rapid Lemon Productions presents the world premiere of Give Me Moonlight by Ariel Mitchell. This surrealist tale of historical happenings in rooted in the truth of Albert and Bessie Johnson, who eventually built a castle in Death Valley. Directed by Noah Silas, the play features just four actors and carries a loosely woven narrative of hope and despair, fact and fiction, and is an ultimately curious and enjoyable evening out at the theatre.
Playwright Ariel Mitchell has settled her boots into the dusty fantasyland of Death Valley, though much of the play doesn’t actually occur there. As she mentions in her director’s note, Mitchell follows a feeling (perhaps even several) in her construction of this squiggly and linear-adjacent adventure. Viewers be advised that there are wildly surreal scenes that interrupt the functional flow of the narrative, though this isn’t a distraction so much as it is an intriguing tangent of the imagination. These surreal scenes, which help fuse emotion and reality for the primary characters— Bessie and Albert— are dramatically heightened by the Lighting Design of Allan Sean Weeks and the Sound Designer of Max Garner and Director Noah Silas. Mitchell excavates a rarity in America’s past; she chooses the somewhat obscure and ultimately banal couple that you don’t really hear about in the history books and elevates them to the focal protagonists of her story. While Mitchell does an excellent job of crafting dramatic scenes that are mired in a sinking emotional bog, the ending is an abrupt and overly-saccharine cap to an otherwise deep and thought-provoking dramatic experience. Mitchell may be true to history in the notion of “happily ever after” but it stands to reason that it falls drastically far afield of the rather ingenious drama she’s crafted right up to the point of the conclusion, which because of its sugary nature almost feels forced.
Earning their keep throughout the production, both Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks and Sound Designer Max Garner (working in tandem on the design with Director Noah Silas) help bring a vivacious life to both the serious, narrative-driven scenes as well as the chimeric and surreal scenes in Mitchell’s play. Garner and Silas really augment the nightmare of the train crash by using sweeping crescendos of the locomotive engine, almost in a sonic slow-motion; this sound effect permeates the atmosphere of the intimate space and really drives home the lingering notion of the way this traumatic event impacts the leading protagonists lives. Scenic Designer Bruce Kapplin ties the aesthetic elements of the production together by volley-setting the audience on either side of the court-cross staging, decorating the edges of the physical play space with sand, tumbleweeds, and desert brush, to transport the audience to the feeling (rather than the actual location) of Death Valley. The furnishings are simple, the costumes (by Deana Fisher Brill) are tasteful and period appropriate.
As the rambunctious caricature of a well-known prospector, Flynn Harne plays ‘Scotty’ with great bouts of gusto and gumption. Harne’s character is the only one that exists in an over-the-top and heightened manner even in the more ‘straight’ reality moments of the play. Harne delivers a muddled “go-west-young-man” style accent— its unclear what accents are being achieved or attempted in this production, but they don’t sound modern or of any specific landing, so that helps with the loose setting structure— with consistency throughout the performance and he catches your eye, even when he’s spitting viper venom like a refined snake oil salesman. Whitley Cargill, who performs as the lost street girl called Jack, delivers a sound performance as the catalyst in Mitchell’s plot to put the Bessie-Albert narrative back on its tracks. There is an air of mystery about Cargill’s presentation of Jack; her physical execution of “woman deep with child” is noted for its accuracy but also its subtleness. The stubborn temperament that Cargill brings to the character’s forefront is also praiseworthy.
The dynamic interest of the play’s emotional roller coaster vacillates between Albert (Sean Coe) and Bessie (Holly Gibbs.) Shown through a series of abrupt flashbacks— at least one of which arrives in a confusing fashion to the point of mistaking it for discontinuity/believability in the overall narrative flow— the romance and subsequent breakdown thereof of this married couple is the palpable core of the production, driving and informing not only the narrative but the overall thematic arc of the play. Coe is a master with his character’s cane, leaning on it appropriately and believably. Gibbs delivers an impressively muted and yet still mercurial performance as Bessie tries to contain her many emotions and feelings. Gibbs approaches the character in such a way that emotions and feelings become two different experiences for Bessie and this is fascinating. One of the most shocking surreal moments in the production focuses around Gibbs’ character’s perceived attack during a group bible study. Her emotional, facial, and vocal meltdown in this scene is both powerful and stunning, really making this the most impressive and functional of the surrealist scenes in the play.
Ultimately a unique piece of work, with a little fine-tuning and potential redressing of the ending, Ariel Mitchell’s Give Me Moonlight is a new work well worth investigating. You’ll need to trust your imagination, but Mitchell’s work invokes a sense of historic nostalgia all too often missing from our contemporary American cannon.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission
Give Me Moonlight pays through February 16, 2020 with Rapid Lemon Productions in residence at Motor House— 120 W. North Avenue in the Station North district of Baltimore City, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.