Review: ‘SOON’ at The Highwood Theatre

Depending on whom you ask, climate change is either ongoing, its devastating progression towards the inevitable oblivion of life on Earth all but inarguable, or a hoax perpetrated by the ignorant or execrable upon the self-deluded or gullible. In the Highwood Theatre’s skillfully mounted and performed production of Nick Blaemire’s SOON, the more urgent matter may be less a question of which of the two uncompromisingly opposing sides is right about the future, either near or far, than it is a suggestion that we may be looking in the all the wrong places; that we should instead look inward for the answers that, no matter what the ultimate fate of the planet—even if it is in our lifetime—will matter most.

Dylan Kaufman, Madison Middleton, Isabella Benning, and Henry Wiebe in SOON. Photo by Angel Soriano.

This intimate musical play, which had its world premiere two years ago at Signature Theatre, has a four-person cast which, in this production, comprises two teams of actors, one student and one adult, who alternate throughout the run. (The one I saw featured the student cast.) The songs, written by the playwright, range from pleasing, rhythmic, pop-rock ballads to almost operatic in intensity, and the young actors are, on the whole, up to the task—in some cases, thrillingly so—and work in satisfying tandem with Kevin Kearney on piano and Cecelia Russell (ninth grade) on guitar.

The scene progression is not always linear, keeping the audience subtly off-balance, much as the characters are. We meet Charlie (Madison Middleton), at first glance a seemingly mellow, together young woman, casually but neatly dressed, dark blond hair twirled in a bun. Her attention is drawn to the television, where a newscaster (Angel Soriano) is announcing that the world is coming to an end because of human blindness to the destruction wreaked as a consequence of human actions (and inaction). She quickly switches channels; on the next, a commentator loudly proclaims the falsity of the claims of imminent climate change. These jarring announcements are either mitigated or exacerbated, depending on your point of view, by the usual contingent of ostensibly urgent or blithely inane commercials (Commercial Voice: Yael Kissel).

Charlie’s complexity will become increasingly visible, the reasons for it creeping up on us, then hitting like hammer blows delivered through a layer of cotton: it takes a few moments to feel the impact, but it is telling. Going into the kitchen, Charlie sings “Peanut Butter,” an ode to the joys of the popular spread, but concludes her paean with: “What do you do when you know you just have a few months to live?” With no preparation, we blink, then think it’s probably a teasing inquiry from a college kid with too much time on her hands. At turns engagingly childlike and wittily or scathingly self-assured, Middleton’s Charlie is a savvy someone, who appears to know her way in and around the world she inhabits. As we will learn, that is far from the case: shaken by the news reports, Charlie has decided never to to leave the apartment.

Charlie has a support system of sorts: her close friend and gay roommate / sometime-boyfriend Steven (Henry Wiebe), her mother / sometime “sister” Adrienne (Isabella Benning), her insistently romantic, soon-to-be-boyfriend delivery man, Jonah (Dylan Kaufman) and—of perhaps greatest comfort—a goldfish named Herschel (which Charlie and Steven ecumenically baptize with a hora, danced to a happily silly, clapping, stamping rendition of “Hava nagila”).

Dylan Kaufman and Henry Wiebe in SOON. Photo by Angel Soriano.

In addition to their general proficiency, each of the four players has a key scene that he or she can be said to “own.” In his, an intoxicated Steven stumbles into the apartment, offering a Buster Keaton-worthy series of pratfalls and reaching an apogee of hilarity in a whirling crash into the kitchen’s large white fridge—this is his home, remember—followed by a shocked, wide-eyed backward jolt (“Well, that came out of nowhere”).

Charlie’s relationship with Adrienne is an emotional roller coaster, thanks to the mother’s ability to empathize with her daughter to the extent that it validates her own feelings, but inability to use that insight to sympathize with and try to mitigate her daughter’s fear and pain. While Adrienne is capable of an amiable, bouncy phone conversation (“How Are You?”) when Charlie tells her she’ll see her soon, Adrienne replies somewhat obliquely, and disconcertingly, that “there aren’t many soons left.”

Hard, yet brittle rather than forceful, Benning’s Adrienne is an enigma whose all but gratuitous cruelties toward her daughter we will see her briefly wrestle with. But only for a moment; the enigma will remain. At one point, Adrienne, chicly attired in a sleeveless black velour pantsuit with a floral jacket in red-and-black satin (Costume Designer Tip Letsche; Costume Assistants Stacy Walker and Paulina Campbell), is overcome with a wracking cough. Is it real, or a play for attention?

Charlie creates a hybrid pastry, half muffin, half cupcake, that Jonah urges her to promote. Charlie says she’ll do it “soon,” joining him in a melodious ode (“Sweet and Golden Brown”) with the reassuring refrain, “When you make things, it makes things better.” To which Charlie, her own fears and uncertainties no doubt exacerbated by Adrienne’s warning, injects a shot of rueful realism: “But nothing ever really stays.”

But Jonah, who has a crush on Charlie (and is also, or so he says, ADD—though his visible symptoms, at least when it comes to that crush, could also be those of another orthographically “ad” condition: prolonged adolescence), is determined to stay. As winningly and convincingly portrayed by Kaufman, whose strong, true voice and directness of delivery drive the key phrase, “But I can’t keep on waiting” home in the stirring “Waiting,” Jonah’s passion is so sweet, so raw, so humorously uncompromising, that we are unprepared for what he will become—or perhaps, rather, manifest—further along in the play.

The production crew is top-notch. That among its members are middle-school students gives even more reason (in addition to the professional quality of the youthful cast, all high school seniors) to hold out hope for the regularly, and perhaps too facilely, lamented future of live theater. Ninth-grader Lu Collina, the stage manager, and Production Manager Jade Brooks-Bartlett adeptly align the varied elements of putting on a musical drama, while the set design team of Fiona Lipczenko (fifth grade), Dante Stasio (eleventh grade), and Simon Ellerbe (seventh grade) offers a functional and attractive setting that, including strategically placed doors and a half-hidden “back room” at the rear of stage right, behind whose white curtains draped white sheets and the occasional unidentified person are visible. A large video screen at the back of the stage displays alternating scenes to complement the action onstage, by echo or contrast (prop design: Jade Brooks-Bartlett).

Madison Middleton, Henry Wiebe, and Isabella Benning in SOON. Photo by Angel Soriano.

The lighting, by lighting design team Jonah Witte (seventh grade) and Eliana Beals (eighth grade), with Board Operators Simon Ellerbe, Amari Mbongwo (eighth grade), and Jonah Witte (seventh grade), adroitly follows the narrative and emotional arc of the play, from cloaking the stage in scaled levels of dimness and dusky shadow during a seminal confessional scene while sharply illuminating angles of the two actors’ faces, to going full-bore with spirit-buoying brightness in the picnic scene. Sound and projection design are also proficiently handled by Simon Ellerbe.

Above all, kudos to Director Cate Caplin, for her astute, assured, and sensitive piloting of a theatrical project with few parallels, encompassing not just two casts but casts differentiated by experience and years, yet united by having a common leader and crew in a show that asks perhaps unanswerable questions of them, and of their audiences.

In a 2015 interview with Broadway World, when SOON premiered at Signature Theatre, Playwright/Composer Nick Blaemire said the inspiration for the show was rooted in his own self-doubt, and his need to work out the conflicting feelings it engendered. “So I asked myself, how could I talk about that in the most compelling and direct way . . . stakes are always the first place I start . . . what if I set those questions at the end of the world and really investigate them in a very focused, seemingly small narrative, and hopefully ask big questions in a small way, with room to breathe and think around them.”

“Just because I want something to be taken a certain way, doesn’t mean I have control over that,” said Blaemire, then adding, “I don’t want anyone to be bored . . . and I have control over that.”

That is certainly true of the student show this writer saw. If the pros are as persuasive, overall, in characterization and vocalization as this cast of talented, dynamic, technically proficient and, at key points, emotionally eloquent high school students, whichever production you see, Nick Blaemire—like the characters he so compellingly drew—will have nothing to fear.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

SOON plays through April 29, 2018 (with alternating casts, student and adult), at The Highwood Theatre – 914 Silver Spring Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.