‘Black Hole’ at Port City Playhouse

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Black Hole is a show about people with emotional baggage. Not the cute little carryon kind of baggage but the its-going-to-cost-you-money-because-it’s-over-fifty-pounds kind of baggage. It’s a powerful drama about family history and relationships and their impact on feelings of loss, control, and love. It’s a story told with honesty and humor and it’s a production I recommend you see.

The cast of 'Black Hole.' Photo by   Michael deBlois.

The cast of ‘Black Hole.’ Photo by Michael deBlois.

Port City Playhouse opened its season with the world premiere of its first “Playwright Incubator Project,” Black Hole, written by local theater veteran Jean Koppen. The quality production uses every inch of the intimate Lab at Convergence space in Alexandria to bring the audience into the story. Kudos to the entire Port City team of volunteers for their willingness to incubate a production from an early script draft through workshop to production. As a result, Port City has delivered an original work of art that will leave the audience questioning their own histories and re-examining what they think they know about their familial relationships.

As Black Hole opens, we see Jane (Nicky McDonnell) in her childhood bedroom cleaning, sorting, and tossing. Marty (Frank Pasqualino), Jane’s father, enters and we quickly learn some things about him. He was a good father and involved in Jane’s life because he remembers her ballet obsession was around her seventh birthday, not her eighth. We also learn Marty is a bit of a hoarder and is unwilling to trash anything. (Not the extension cord…it is extra long!).

Jane argues with her father to let her clear out some of the home’s accumulation of things that are no longer needed. He wants everything to stay exactly the same because everything is a connection to his wife who has recently passed away following a difficult, and ultimately unsuccessful, hospital stay for cancer treatment. This first scene is effective in introducing us to Jane and her father and both McDonnell and Pasqualino create unforgettable characters who express both love for and frustration with one another.

Drew (Lars Klores) and Jane (Nicky McDonnell). Photo by Michael deBlois.

Drew (Lars Klores) and Jane (Nicky McDonnell). Photo by Michael deBlois.

Jane is the gravitational center of the story and we soon meet her husband Drew, (Lars Klores), her brother Jim (Brent Stone), sister-in-law Patty (Jennifer Lyons Pagnard), and niece Christina (Maya Brettell).  This is not a happy Norman Rockwell family. Old hurts and unfulfilled expectation surface as they meet to make a perfect Christmas for the gruff Marty. We get to see the entire ensemble and they are terrific both together and individually in fully inhabiting their roles.

Klores and McDonnell are quite believable as a long-time married couple who decided years ago to never have children. The two actors are so comfortable with one another and we want to cheer as Drew defends his wife. Stone and Pagnard’s characters have a different kind of relationship but again the actors work well together. Pagnard, in her Christmas sweater, is clearly the most stalwart of the two. Stone just begins to hint at a vulnerability that will be further developed throughout the show.

In the midst of this early scene among the troupe of strong actors, it is Brettell as Jayne’s niece who stands out. The actress skillfully straddles the whiny, aloof teenager persona with that of a girl who is curious about the relatives she barely knows. Brettell’s expressive performance throughout the entire show conveys a maturity beyond her years. She is certainly one to watch.

Director Joanna Henry is to be congratulated on her work in Black Hole. She is able to keep the high intensity scenes from swinging out of control. She gets strong performances from the entire cast and uses the small stage to good effect. I especially enjoyed watching some of the actors when they were not the center of attention. They were realistic in their actions without pulling focus from others.

The producers Rachel Alberts and Nicole Zuchetto brought together a terrific crew which can be a real challenge in the world of DMV community theater. The set from Set Designer Ken Crowley was modest, yet gave us two completely different locations within the small space. Costume Designer Ceci Alberts and Hair and Makeup artist Rachel Royall supported the story with their work. The Sound (designed by Alan Wray) and Lighting (designed by Ken & Patti Crowley) teams never missed a beat and never overshadowed the story. I especially liked the piano interludes between scenes but I’m still wondering why the dramatic lighting on the living room artwork at the outset and between several scenes.

Black Hole is the first full-length play by Koppen who began writing in 2011. In that short time, she won Active Culture’s Sportaculture playwriting contest and has had her one-act play seen at Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival. This script showcases Koppen’s talent with dialogue, character arc, and with a story that reminds us that things are not always as we might believe them to be.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Black Hole plays through September 27, 2014, at Port City Playhouse performing at the Lab at Convergence – 1819 N. Quaker Lane, in Alexandria, VA. Tickets are available online or at the box office one hour prior to the performance.

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