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Pluto's surreal effects don't undermine credible characters

The Actor's Express production balances surface and depth

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When single mom Elizabeth (Kathleen Wattis) returns from shopping and makes remarks like "It's going to be a normal day, just like any other," the audience for Actor's Express's Pluto waits for the other shoe to drop. Elizabeth's assertion of commonplace comforts sounds as ominous as hearing someone say "I'll be right back" in a slasher movie.

Sure enough, Elizabeth soon has to resist such freaky phenomena as the refrigerator bucking like a thing possessed while the family dog begins to recite scientific jargon. It's worth pointing out that Alison Hastings plays the dog, and while she doesn't bark or wear a furry costume, she maintains a very specific posture that conveys canine attentiveness. Also, characters allude to the fact that she has three heads and may be the most famous three-headed dog in literature. Relatively early on, Pluto suggests that the day will definitely be unlike any other.

With Pluto, playwright Steve Yockey and director Melissa Foulger walk a tightrope of theatrical effects that push in opposite directions, juxtaposing relatable people against unearthly imagery. Pluto impressively finds the right balance of dysfunctional family drama, dark comedy, and rich metaphor, despite the high degree of difficulty.

Elizabeth and her troubled son Bailey (Wyatt Fenner) offer a textbook example of poor family communication. She vainly encourages him to open up about his difficulties at the local college, while Bailey tries to get her to discuss the details of his father's death. Both also try to ignore interruptions from the outside world, including highly specific radio broadcasts as well as intrusions from Bailey's classmate Maxine (Stephanie Friedman). An old playmate turned vicious, Maxine barges in and belittles him, displaying such a weird blend of sadism and free-spirited quirkiness, you could call her a "manic pixie mean girl."

I won't spell out the play's ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter or the mysterious role played by Joe Sykes, a mainstay of Yockey productions. It's fun to tease out the play's enigmas, but Pluto proves less about big reveals than the mother-son relationship and dealing with loss. With her matter-of-fact acting style, Wattis effectively comes across as a real woman in an impossible situation as opposed to a heightened idea of maternalism. Her performance matches the naturalism of Kat Conley's set of the suburban kitchen. Bailey comes across as similarly credible, although late in the play, Fenner gives a long-awaited speech with deliberately flat delivery, a reflection of Bailey's emotional state that nevertheless draws energy from the action.

An Atlanta native moving onto the national stage, Yockey has shown a long-standing interest in violence and extremities of human behavior, and Pluto is no exception. He brings out an empathy and humanism in Pluto not always noticeable in his previous work, with Bailey and Elizabeth proving so well-realized, you can imagine them having lives outside the play's confines. Once the play gives up its secrets, all of its disparate elements, from seemingly unmotivated actions to surreal visual effects, come justifiably together. And if Pluto's detail about the downgrading of the titular dwarf planet feels like a tired metaphor, the play can send fans of adventurous theater into orbit.

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