Last week­end to catch ‘Small Planet’ at CHT

Record Observer - - Arts & Entertainment - By PETER HECK pheck@thekent­coun­tynews.com

CHESTERTOWN — You could rea­son­ably de­scribe Gore Vi­dal’s “Visit to a Small Planet,” cur­rently play­ing at Church Hill Theatre, as a com­bi­na­tion of “Mork and Mindy” and “Dr. Strangelove” — ex­cept for the fact it was writ­ten be­fore ei­ther of those cul­tural land­marks.

Vi­dal’s play, writ­ten at the peak of the Cold War in 1957, is built on a fa­mil­iar premise: a space alien comes to our world, and his out­sider view­point reveals many of the ab­sur­di­ties we earth­lings take for granted. Mid­dle­brow cul­ture, mil­i­tarism, the rise of mass me­dia, ma­te­ri­al­ism — all are plum tar­gets for Vi­dal’s satiric barbs.

The play is set at the country home of the Speld­ing fam­ily near Manas­sas, Va. As the play opens, Roger Speld­ing, a TV news pun­dit, is talk­ing to his old col­lege friend Gen. Tom Pow­ers about the cur­rent fly­ing saucer scare. Speld­ing is about to air a show that dis­proves the ex­is­tence of UFOs. Then Pow­ers tells him the Army has been track­ing one in the neigh­bor­hood, which is why he’s vis­it­ing. Nat­u­rally, Speld­ing wants to break the story, but Pow­ers says he can’t be­cause it’s top se­cret.

And then the saucer lands in Speld­ing’s back yard. Out comes Kre­ton, an alien mil­i­tary his­tory fan who’s come to view the Civil War bat­tle of Bull Run. When he learns he has ar­rived more than 100 years too late, he de­cides to stay and see what the 20th cen­tury has to of­fer.

Nat­u­rally, Gen. Pow­ers is at a loss as to how to deal with the alien — whose race has ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy. Since they’ve learned how to live for­ever, the aliens have no need for re­pro­duc­tion. And, as it turns out, Kre­ton has strange pow­ers, in­clud­ing mind read­ing.

Mean­while, Speld­ing’s wife Reba is bliss­fully un­aware of every­thing — and their daugh­ter Ellen is con­sid­er­ing drop­ping out of col­lege to marry a neigh­bor­ing farmer, Con­rad May­berry, of whom both par­ents heartily dis­ap­prove.

But as Kre­ton de­cides to take a more ac­tive role in the 20th cen­tury world, things take a sin­is­ter turn. He may have missed Bull Run, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be an­other, even big­ger war. And there’s a gen­eral right on the spot to move things along.

Howard Mesick, one of the Shore’s most re­li­able comic ac­tors, is well cast as Kre­ton, the alien. The role in­cludes car­ry­ing on a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion with a cat (on loan from the An­i­mal Wel­fare League of Queen Anne’s County — and avail­able for adop­tion af­ter the play closes) and swoop­ing around the stage in Con­fed­er­ate uni­form. Mesick pulls it all off with a straight face and ex­cel­lent tim­ing — it’s great fun to watch.

John Nor­ton, who worked as a pro­ducer at two Bal­ti­more TV sta­tions, is con­vinc­ingly pompous as Roger Speld­ing, the TV com­men­ta­tor. He ef­fec­tively por­trays the char­ac­ter’s on-cam­era ar­ro­gance as well as his worry that he might get scooped.

Shan­non Whi­taker also pro­vides a good per­for­mance as the Speld­ings’ daugh­ter, Ellen — prob­a­bly the most lik­able char­ac­ter in the cast. Torn be­tween tra­di­tional val­ues and ide­al­ism, Ellen is in many ways the deep­est char­ac­ter in the play, and Whi­taker brings this out be­liev­ably. A nice, nu­anced per­for­mance.

Deb­bie Eber­sole turns in one of her best per­for­mances as Reba Speld­ing, with a clue­less sweet­ness that mocks the Eisen­hower era’s im­age of a per­fect wife. She has some of the bet­ter laugh lines of the play, and she de­liv­ers them with just the right tone.

Justin But­ler, mak­ing his de­but at CHT, takes the role of Con­rad, Ellen’s boyfriend. An anti-war, anti-ma­te­ri­al­ist ide­al­ist, he chal­lenges the as­sump­tions of the older char­ac­ters al­most as much as the alien — yet his fo­cus is re­ally on his love for Ellen. But­ler makes it all con­vinc­ing; we’ll hope to see more of him on­stage in the fu­ture.

Pat Martin, who has nu­mer­ous cred­its in com­mu­nity the­ater in the Wash­ing­ton area, takes the role of Gen. Pow­ers. He does a good job con­vey­ing the gen­eral’s grow­ing in­se­cu­rity as he finds him­self deal­ing with the alien — and with the re­al­iza­tion of what a real war might mean for him.

John Haas, a CHT board mem­ber, plays the gen­eral’s aide, whom Kre­ton de­cides is a fit sub­ject for demon­stra­tions of his pow­ers. Haas plays the un­will­ing comic butt with a nice bal­ance of re­sent­ment and dis­may.

Maya McGrory, a CHT vet­eran de­spite her young age, does a nice job in a small part as Del­ton 4, an­other alien. And Bob McGrory (Maya’s fa­ther) and Me­gan Boyle do a good job in brief parts as Speld­ing’s TV cam­era­man and sound tech.

The set, de­signed by Sam Martin, makes good use of the CHT stage, even ex­tend­ing one wing to pro­vide an “out­door” area. And Les Lentz’s sound de­sign, with lots of Buddy Holly tunes, ef­fec­tively evokes the era.

“Visit to a Small Planet” will be play­ing through Sun­day, April 17. Fri­day and Satur­day per­for­mances are at 8 p.m.; Sun­day mati­nees are at 2 p.m. Tick­ets are $20 for adults, $10 for stu­dents. The­ater mem­bers re­ceive a dis­count.

For reser­va­tions, call the the­ater at 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchillthe­atre. org.

PHOTO BY STEVEN G. ATKIN­SON

The Speld­ing fam­ily and Con­rad (from left: John Nor­ton, Shan­non Whi­taker, Deb­bie Eber­sole, and Justin But­ler) gaze with un­cer­tainty into the night sky, where they seem to have lo­cated an Uniden­ti­fied Fly­ing Ob­ject.

CON­TRIB­UTED PHOTO

Peake Play­ers present “Gypsy” Fri­day and Satur­day at 7:30 p.m., with a mati­nee per­for­mance on Sun­day at 2 p.m.

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