Reach of ‘Jupiter Moon’ exceeds its grasp

Just the same, Bob Valine’s script functions on the emotional level of poetry or music – and gets a bang-up world premiere staging from Panndora Productions.
By Eric Marchese

“Jupiter Moon” could best be categorized, genre-wise, as a family-oriented dramedy. You might also call it a slice of life, since it’s a closeup examination of personalities and relationships, without much action and very little in the way of outright plot.

That’s a verbal summary of the play, now in its world premiere courtesy Panndora Productions at Long Beach’s Garage Theatre. Director Sonja Berggren and company give Bob Valine’s new play a thoughtful, loving staging that dares us to be judgmental regarding the considerable quirks of three of the story’s four characters, members of a family.

Those would be Dorothy (Karen Wray), whose husband left the family years earlier, and her two teen kids, Debbie (Colleen McCandless) and Jeff (Paul Scott).

Dorothy putters around, helping make ends meet by renting out a room, and one day, a possible new tenant appears – Tom (Erik Pfeifer), who is taking courses in European history at the local college and needs a place to live.

“Jupiter Moon” opens with Tom’s arrival into the family’s home and closes with his reappearance after having gone away. In between, we watch Dorothy, Debbie and Jeff interact and see Tom establish relationships with all three family members.

The play’s focal theme is the distances that for whatever reasons separate people. The outward physical analogy for the play’s interpersonal connections is Jeff’s hobby of studying the moons of Jupiter through his telescope and his obsession with visiting them – via a motorcycle he has built, cobbled together from old spare parts.

Throughout the course of the story, all three family members project and impose their emotional needs onto Tom, who accepts the challenge and even seems to welcome it. The only explanation for the comments, actions and interactions of all four “Jupiter Moon” characters is that all four – including the seemingly level-headed Tom – are lost souls struggling to find their way.

As such, “Jupiter Moon” stands as a sort of touchy-feely portrait of emotions that’s a lot closer to classic poetry or classical music and, to use the play’s own framework, a lot farther away from the more literary-oriented nature of a scripted drama or dramedy.

Valine’s skill as a writer injects enough touches of light humor to prevent the script and story from being bogged down in bathos, but his script misses a chance to create something compelling. His characters are interesting and certainly quirky, but watching the play begs the question of why we should care about them – something Panndora’s fine production can only do so much to dispel.

Since Tom needs and craves time and privacy to study, we wonder why he puts up with Debbie and Dorothy’s constant interruptions, which however comedic, still come off as irritating. And as Debbie is 16 and Tom a mature adult, her confronting him and starting to undress carries a built-in creep factor, with Tom’s calm, reasonable way of handling the bizarre incident keeping the scene afloat.

We wonder what happened to the family before his arrival. Did Dorothy’s ex leave because she and the kids were so strange? Or did he leave for other reasons, his absence then inflicting emotional trauma upon them?

Our not knowing which of these is the case hamstrings the story, putting it out of reach of being truly compelling. Tom’s return near the play’s end is a predictable plot point that lets us down in terms of providing a potent, compelling conclusion to the story.

Despite the script’s shortcomings, Valine is deft at creating distinctive characters and clever, inventive touches. One of these is Tom’s late-play monologue, which goes a long way toward explaining his quiet, forthright demeanor. Another is his insistence that Dorothy dance with him, symbolic of his pulling her up out of depression, enhanced by Berggren’s having Tom softly sing “Moondance” while the pair dance.

Valine also crafts a handful of memorable, perfectly worded lines – to wit: Dorothy’s comment that “books are wonderful friends – they’re just like puppy dogs” and saying that going to school “is an important part of the agony of growing up,” and Debbie’s barbed remark to Dorothy that “father went on a ‘Mission Impossible’ mission: He married you.”

As scripted and via Wray’s outstanding portrayal, Dorothy is quirky, sweet, friendly – and, however benign, a froot-loop nonetheless. Not merely talkative, she emits almost non-stop chatter – nor is she oblivious to this fact, asking Tom “Why am I always talking?” Though the term manic-depressive is never used, we’re more or less led to believe that Dorothy is indeed thus afflicted.

Tom isn’t just someone renting a room, but a soft-spoken, kind, non-judgmental sounding board – and, as such, is almost too good to be true. Who else, in the face of such emotional dysfunction, would label Dorothy a “good mother,” Debbie a “normal teen” and make overtures toward Jeff in an attempt to befriend him? His telling Dorothy “You’re not nuts – but you come pretty close” tells us he’s at peace with her emotional and mental imbalances.

In the role, Pfeifer exhibits patience that’s almost saintly, earning our respect and admiration for bearing up in a way most of us would not be able, or be inclined, to.

While not overly cheerful, the almost-hyper Debbie seems to talk almost compulsively, in Tom’s face from the get-go, peppering him with a stream of chatter and the kind of questions you might not even ask a close friend, let alone a near-total stranger. She seems almost obsessed with stoking Tom’s impatience, ire or dislike toward her, and her fixation on him makes her appear exceedingly needy. And maybe that’s the point, that she didn’t receive enough love and attention from her parents so is now seeking it elsewhere.

We can’t tell whether Debbie finds brother Jeff an object of ridicule, merely tolerates him or actually does love him. Considering her nickname of “Starman,” it’s probably the former, but from McCandless’s reading, it’s hard to tell. Otherwise, though, McCandless delivers an explosive performance that ably depicts Debbie’s precocity, anger, aggression, self-loathing and obvious hatred of Dorothy.

Jeff is OCD about his “stuff” (as in “don’t touch my stuff!”) and spends most of his time alone in his room. Scott can do little to dispel our impression of Jeff as near-catatonic, and although the role is less fully developed than the other three, it’s to the script’s advantage since the Dorothy-Tom-Debbie interactions provide sufficient dramatic heft.

Berggren’s direction bolsters the play’s crisscrossing themes, such as her use of classical music to underscore Dorothy’s one-time ability to play classical piano and the pleasing touch of having Dorothy hum “Fly Me to the Moon” in an early scene.

Yuri Okahana’s set design, McLeod Benson’s lighting and the duo’s projections go a long way toward shoring up some of the script’s flaws. A mini grand piano stands front and center, representing Dorothy’s one-time ability to play, and tiny models of grand pianos can be found in every room of her home.

Dozens of pages of classical music cover the walls, representing the subtextual theme of music, while the batches of black and white strings that stretch across the set at angles and from ceiling to floor connote that theme but also tie in with the overarching theme of connection.

Even more stunning are the almost ever-present projections of the night sky depicting colorful stars, planets and galaxies constantly in motion, giving us a visual representation of the heavens and the huge distances between heavenly bodies – distances that “Jupiter Moon” tells us might not be anywhere near as vast as those that can and often develop between people and which can take considerable effort to bridge.

‘Jupiter Moon’

When: Through June 3. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. May 31
Where: Garage Theater, 251 E. Seventh Street, Long Beach
Tickets: $25 ($20 students/seniors/military, $30 June 3 closing). Buy Tickets
Length: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Suitability: Adults and teens (for language and content)
​​​​​​​Rating: ***
Information: 323-377-2988, panndoraproductions.com


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