NEW YORK (AP) — Ghosts from our past are often in our minds, but thinking they walk among us is another story.
Ann Washburn provides a realistic, disarming ghost tale, invigorated with ruminations about time and space, in her new play, "Antlia Pneumatica." A quietly unsettling production directed by Ken Rus Schmoll premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons Monday.
A group of old friends reunites after 25 years at a ranch house in Texas to bury one of their friends. Reminiscences, dreams and regrets are shared via casual conversations, stories and the occasional song.
Unlike Washburn's wildly surreal, futuristic "Mr. Burns," ''Antlia Pneumatica" is a tender examination of everyday concerns, including lapsed friendships, regrets, parenting and death, with dark humor and some supernatural undertones. Scenes of shared memories between the friends are effectively given ritualistic, elegiac treatments.
The action centers on the comforting death ritual of food preparation, with the cast always gathered in the kitchen of Nina's family ranch. Annie Parisse is grounded and thoughtful as happily married mom Nina, while April Mathis is winsomely sensitive as her sister, Liz. Maria Strier gives a drily humorous persona to currently single Ula, and Nat DeWolf is sweetly goofy as Len.
Rob Campbell is charming yet oddly disengaged as Nina's bad-boy old flame, Adrian, whose unexpected attendance shocks everyone. Hovering enigmatically on the fringe of group conversations, he becomes most intense in scenes alone with Nina, including one performed entirely in the dark except for a dazzling starry sky (courtesy of Tyler Micoleau's lighting and Rachel Hauck's set design).
In keeping with the astrological theme conveyed by the title, a reference to lesser-known constellations, Liz shares a disturbing dream she once had where "stars fell like rain" until they left empty patches in the sky.
The childish chatter of Nina's two children is only heard offstage, yet one of the more magical moments occurs when some minor singsong about a dead ant swells into a major hymn with Biblical lyrics and lush orchestral accompaniment. It's a spoof of parents' high regard for their kids' minor achievements, yet also a tender nod to the sweet innocence of childhood.
By the time an energetically comical Crystal Finn arrives as Bama, bringing improbable information critical to the denouement, Schmoll has satisfactorily overlaid the realism and ordinariness with an atmosphere of mystery.
For the living, whether time is an illusion or a heavy burden, a casual line from Nina sums up the reunion-inspired soul-searching: "Hopefully they figure the life they're leading is a perfectly fine one."