Review: ‘The Interstellar Ghost Hour’ by Longacre Lea

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It’s the time of the theater season for those with a taste for the offbeat and original, and time to accept the invitation for the yearly production from Longacre Lea displaying Kathleen Akerley’s arresting talents as playwright and director.

Christine Alexander as Iris in The Interstellar Ghost Hour. Photo courtesy of Longacre Lea.
Christine Alexander as Iris in The Interstellar Ghost Hour. Photo courtesy of Longacre Lea.

With her newest work, The Interstellar Ghost Hour, Akerley is a sharp-eyed observer of the uncommon, the off-center, and the non-linear when it comes to characters adrift in both outer space and their own inner emptiness. After all, why should seeking a decent relationship be so difficult even in a world before Tinder?

Akerley’s The Interstellar Ghost Hour is a quality dramatic trip, though at times a bit too dense, with an overriding comic sensibility to it. With Akerley’s direction and her casting choices, the production is almost impish as “an astronaut travels back to her childhood home to confront her dead parents, but finds the house crowded with visitors from across spacetime” as Longacre Lea marketing material describes the plot.

But there is much more to The Interstellar Ghost Hour than that quick synopsis lets on. One of the weightier issues it tackles is how habitual patterns of living life looking backward to the past can preclude living a full, rich life in the present.

The Interstellar Ghost Hour begins with some well-crafted projections onto an enormous old-fashioned-looking television screen (Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, set design) that set up what the audience can expect. It is a cute excursion into cinema territory that brought chuckles from the audience at the performance I attended.

Then the first voiced line is spoken by the production’s central character, an astronaut the audience learns is named Iris. She is decked out in total astronaut getup including a nifty helmet with a visor (a well-deserved bow to costume designer Lynly Saunders) speaking to a woman sitting quietly on a small couch, just this side of awake. Iris asks “Do you wish I mourned you differently?” Well, that caught my attention. Then not long after, Iris asks the same question of a rather peppy man, “Do you wish I mourned you differently?”

Well, off I went to follow playwright Akerley and her characters down some rabbit holes.

Seems that Iris has traveled through time and space to get back home to reach out to her dead parents. Iris (Christine Alexander) is at first a deadpan characterization unsure of herself in the presence of her parents. Over time she presents as more alert to her character’s agency and commanding presence to others. Julie Weir plays Iris’s mom, an almost serene woman who snaps into deep sleep rather than verbally challenging her sometimes loud-mouth husband, Iris’s dad. As the dad, Scott Ward Abernethy is a restless man with a coiled anger aimed at his daughter that comes to the surface at times.

Given the non-linear journey of The Interstellar Ghost Hour, much is best left unrevealed in this review. Just strap in and go with it. But here are some markers. Once home, Iris finds that the home she once shared with her parents as a child had at least one previous owner, Brian (a delightfully skittish Ryan Sellers), now in the midst of selling the dwelling to Iris’s parents. In a space-time shift, Brian is working with his realtor Jeff (a charmingly comical Dylan Arredondo).

Ryan Sellers, Dylan Arredondo, and Moriamo Akibu in The Interstellar Ghost Hour. Photo courtesy of Longacre Lea.
Ryan Sellers, Dylan Arredondo, and Moriamo Akibu in The Interstellar Ghost Hour. Photo courtesy of Longacre Lea.

But here’s the thing. Brian can sense the “ghostly” presence of Iris in his house. He can’t see her, but “knows” she is there. Will that kill any deal to sell his home to Iris’s parents? Brian calls in a ghost wrangler, or better yet, a ghost whisperer, to figure out what to do. The agile Moriamo Akibu has a skill at appearing totally amusing with just the slightest facial expression and even some yoga poses while delivering the most “straight” lines.

While the live performance is before the audience, there is a parallel and major video piece (Seamus Miller, video designer) projected on the huge television screen, that hearkens back to the ancient Hammurabi and his legal codes. This is accomplished in an off-the-wall manner; let’s just say cable cooking shows with Gordon Ramsey are nothing compared to this. Does Hammurabi totally fit? That you can decide for yourself. There is also a parallel video piece about with a contemporary hunt for clues connected to an urban mystery involving some uneasy moments with a sullen young woman. The video cast includes Tamieka Chavis, Acacia Danielson, Vince Eisenson, Jon Jon Johnson, Séamus Miller, Megan Reichelt, Matt Ripa, Madeline Joey Rose, Emily Whitworth, and Shpend Xani (as Hammurabi).

While The Interstellar Ghost Hour would be enhanced with some pruning of its video scenes, and quicker overall pacing, it will be an appealing production for those with an appetite for its out-of-the-ordinary, sometimes whimsical ways of examining the messiness that human relationships can be.

The Interstellar Ghost Hour floods the audience with a startling mélange of space-time travel and fascinating interpersonal concepts. It’s a theatrical journey in which little seems either far-fetched or implausible. And there is plenty to talk about after the final blackout. Go grab it and let me know what you think.

Running time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

The Interstellar Ghost Hour plays through September 9, 2018, at Longacre Lea performing at The Callan Theatre at The Catholic University’s Drama Complex – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. To reserve tickets, go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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