Encore Michigan

Williamston takes its audiences ‘Out Of Orbit’ in new play

Review May 29, 2018 Bridgette Redman

WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–Mother-daughter relationships can be tricky in the best of times, but when you have a parent on a totally different time zone than her daughter, it’s fraught with even more challenges.

Out of Orbit at Williamston Theatre, directed by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, explores the ways that a mother and daughter try to connect when they are totally different people with little in common. The world premiere of the play by Jennifer Maisel features a highly successful and driven mother who is the lead scientist on the Mars Rover Mission that is putting two probes on Mars in a search for life and the possibility of humans eventually living there.

This mother is played by Williamston co-founder and development director Emily Sutton-Smith and with words and actions she creates a woman whose whole life has brought her to where she is. Every choice Sara has ever made has made it possible for her to be a history maker with heavy expectations on her shoulders. She knows that every little detail can contribute to the project being a success or failure and it’s something she turns around to her daughter’s life, pushing and demanding so that her daughter will have a bright future.

Unfortunately, Lis, played by Christine Elliot, is not merely a question of equations that have to be calculated correctly in order to achieve the desired result. Lis is brilliant, but she has learning challenges that keep her from succeeding the way her mother wants her to. Elliot, a senior BFA acting student at Michigan State University, does an excellent job of mixing rebellion, anxiety, desire and an intense sense of searching to create this high school student who desperately wants to find a sense of self.

The two actresses do an incredible job of creating the relationship. While actors are often skilled at creating chemistry and building in a few weeks of rehearsal connections that can represent years of build-up, these two have a different challenge. They have to show two people who don’t connect. Theirs is a chemistry that creates sparks and threatens to explode. Their dialogue is quick and sharp and they both manage it extremely well to create the necessary tension between the two of them. Shepherd-Bates provides them with space and pacing that keeps the relationship taut and filled with tension.

Each of these women, strong in their own ways, intelligent in their own ways, have their soul mates who do understand them in a way their blood relation does not. Lis’ best friend is Victoria, played by Ejiro. She injects an earthliness into this play that is so often soaring in the stars and to other planets. She reminds Lis what the rest of the world expects and how they act. Ejiro gives life and humor to Victoria, but also a loyalty and all the characteristics of true friendship.

Michael Lopetrone who makes his third appearance on Williamston’s stage continues to impress, especially when he was brought in very late in the process to replace the original actor. In this play, he is Chris, one of the scientists in the Mars Rover mission who helps drive the rovers remotely while they are on Mars. Chris and Sara connect over their shared dreams and an intimate understanding of what drives the other. Lopetrone is enthusiastic and delivers even the most technical of lines with a passion that helps set the stakes of the plot and the relationship between mother and daughter.

Rounding out the cast is Lukas Jacob who is the outsider and poet, Jacob injects a wholly different personality into the play and makes his character one that gives Lis yet another perspective on life.

Maisel packs a lot into this two-hour play. In the process of writing, she got to know the members of the Jet Propulsion Lab who worked on the Mars Rover mission. The research she did was clear—the play shows a deep understanding of the mission, its goals and what it needed to achieve. It is filled with details—like the scientists wearing multiple wrist watches so they can keep track of time zones on Earth and on Mars.

Understanding the mission keeps the stakes high in this play as well as adds a layer of uniqueness. There is a lot that can be learned in this play, both about the U.S. Mars mission and about how people relate to each other.

Maisel does an excellent job with the language of the play, giving each character his or her own set of vocabulary that defines who they are. She raises a lot of questions whose answers will be different for each member of the audience, questions about women and their relationships, their career choices, their ambitions, and how they parent, especially if they are single parents. She raises questions about how to be your own person no matter what others might expect of you.

Williamston also showed that it is ready to get into the projections business. Allison Dobbins designed their projections and the play wouldn’t have worked without it. They partnered with NASA to get the images that they did of the Mars Rover mission and then made great use of Jeromy Hopgood’s gray set to take the audience from Mars to various spots in California. It set each scene with its own subtitles and gave the audience a constantly updating report on time zones and time differences.

“Out of Orbit” is a story by, about and directed by women. Even the two men in the show are mostly there to help us understand the women. It doesn’t relegate them to stereotypical roles. Instead, they are real women facing real challenges and who struggle with their relationship with each other. It’s a play for the modern day, and not just because of the space exploration.