The Aliens by Walking Shadow Theatre Company, performing at Red Eye Theater

Paul Rutledge and Paul LaNave in The Aliens. Photo by Dan Norman.

Paul Rutledge and Paul LaNave in The Aliens. Photo by Dan Norman.

The Aliens (Walking Shadow Theatre Company, performing at Red Eye Theater, through Feb 27) played to a packed house Monday on a pay-what-you-can performance night. If the cast was worn out after their opening weekend stretch they did not show it. Performances on Monday were as energized as the neighbors’ backyard barbeque on the Fourth of July, which is when much of the action of this play takes place.

Directed by John Heimbuch, The Aliens begins with a half minute of silence as Jasper (Paul Rutledge) sits behind a coffee house on a plastic lawn chair gazing into space while KJ (Paul LaNave) fidgets at the picnic table. Finally KJ breaks into a rambling, unmelodious song that we suspect he composed on the spot. Then Jasper, insisting he is not upset, proceeds to relate how his ex-girlfriend called him the night before telling him of her new love interest. Enter Evan (Spencer H. Levin), barista at the coffee house, to tell the pair of vagrants that the area is for employees only. The idle pair befriends the teenaged espresso maker who allows them to stay. Complications follow as the young coffee house employee leaves to be a camp counselor and returns to a different situation.

While there is not a lot of plot in this play there is a great deal of character. Evan, soon to start his senior year in high school, garners most of the laughs with nervous head bobbing and a demeanor that allows us to see the blood literally drain from his face as he tries hard not to be the geeky kid that he is.

The interlopers, Jasper and KJ, are alternately brooding and creative, like artists in search of a portfolio, and a reason to live. To Heimbuch’s credit, he allows all three actors the time and emotional space they need to deliver their lines with honesty and a close-to-the-bone accuracy as they waver between despair and irony.

LaNave as college dropout KJ, has the ability to place his words in a way that is benevolent but betrays an existential angst lying just below the surface. While Rutledge, as the chain smoking Jasper, has the black hair and dark eyes of Edgar Allan Poe that make him perfect for the writer/poet role.

The set has some nice details: a gas meter hangs on the outside wall of the coffee house and weeds poke through an upstage fence. The fence might have been extended and angled to block off part of the right stage wall giving us an enclosed space and allowing the actors to disappear quickly during scene breaks. As it is, some of the finely built atmosphere is lost each time they make their long exits.

Playwright Annie Baker won a Best New Play of the Year Obie Award for The Aliens in 2010 and garnered a Pulitzer in 2014 for her play The Flick. She’s been compared to Chekhov and for good reason. The Aliens is often on the verge of telling us something we need to know to live a fuller life, if only the characters could grab hold of it. The Aliens may not have the power and scope of Chekhov’s works but it contains the same poetic humanity and from start to finish Walking Shadow’s production makes all the poetry in The Aliens sing.

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