Oh, grow up!

"Saturn Returns' by Theatre Exile (1st review)

4 minute read
Canuso, Schoonover: Sympathy for the devil?
Canuso, Schoonover: Sympathy for the devil?
Written jointly with Gresham Riley

Saturn Returns, Theatre Exile's current production, provides a convincing refutation of astrology, just in case we needed one.

The play's title comes from the phenomenon known as the Saturn Return. It takes Saturn approximately 28 and a half years to complete one orbit around the sun. Astrologers believe, therefore, that as Saturn returns to the degree in its orbit occupied at the time of the birth of a person, that person crosses over a major threshold and enters the next stage of life. At some point between age 27 and 30, an individual moves from youth to adulthood; between 58 and 60 from adulthood to maturity; and between 86 and 88 from maturity to wise old age.

Consequently, it's important that Gustin Novak, the play's protagonist (He certainly couldn't be called a hero), be played by three different actors (David Raphaely, Joe Canuso and Harry Philibosian) at each of these thresholds: 28, 58 and 88. The implication, of course, is that Gustin has changed: grown perhaps, learned a few things, become wiser.

Alas, no. Gustin is the same self-involved, selfish, whiny, insensitive boor at 88 that he was at 28.

Three women, one actress

There are three women in Gustin's life: a wife (Loretta) who dies in childbirth; a daughter (Zephyr) who dies in a swimming accident, and a health care worker (Suzanne) on whom he makes unreasonable, insistent demands even though both he and she know that he's perfectly healthy and that she could better expend her time and energy on people who really need her. But as Gustin says, "I just want someone to talk to."

It's important to the plot that the three women all be played by the same actress, since Gustin treats them all the same— as someone to take care of him, fix his breakfast (always the same one), spare him from loneliness— and to each he gives nothing in return. Amanda Schoonover is excellent as all three women. She has exactly the right balance of difference among them even while playing them as all essentially the same.

One happy moment

Gustin's one moment of happiness (one that's almost derailed by his pointing out to his wife, whom we already know to be very fragile, that the lovely dress she's wearing makes her arms look heavy) is the night of his daughter's conception, which leads to her birth, which leads to his wife's death, which leads to the virtual enslavement of the daughter, which eventually leads to Gustin's being so lonely that we're expected to weep for him.

If a man loses the love of his life, he's permitted to mourn, to grieve in fact for the rest of his life, rejecting all others, refusing to discuss his loss and go to his grave with his memories (or his inability to forget, which is the formulation this play takes), and we may well sympathize with him, perhaps even feel a little admiration for his steadfastness.

But he is not entitled to turn his child into his nursemaid, his housekeeper and his cook, depriving her of a life of her own, driving her away with his needless demands, only to try to replace her with another woman who resembles her and who will continue to be sure to serve him his scrambled eggs and grapefruit juice each morning.

Redeeming traits

Gustin isn't really a monster. He has a sense of humor (albeit a sometimes a cruel one); he has a romantic streak (but so did Hitler); and on one occasion he helps Suzanne when she's injured by her boyfriend. It's sad and a little disturbing that in the end Suzanne suggests they might take a trip together, indicating that he has prevailed. Gustin Novak is a man more to be censured than pitied.

Rather than serving as a refutation of astrology, it would be nice to think that Noah Haidle's title as well as the whole story is deeply ironic and that we're meant to understand it as such. If this is the case, it missed the mark, since so many people on opening night commented on how sensitive the poor, sad man was. Good grief!!

Theatre Exile is known for its edgy productions. Not only is there no "edginess" to this one; there is, in the words of Gertrude Stein, no there, there.♦

To read another review by Jackie Atkins, click here.
To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Saturn Returns. By Noah Haidle; Brenna Geffers directed. Theatre Exile production through May 22 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. (above Market between Second and Third). (215) 218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.

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