Rocket to the Moon — Image courtesy Gremlin Theatre

Rocket to the Moon

Gremlin Theatre
Directed by Ellen Fenster

Clifford Odets’s Rocket to the Moon is not what you would call a happy play, populated as it is with characters who invariably want more out of life than they currently have and who often end up hurting each other, and themselves, in pursuit of whatever it is they are seeking. Thankfully, the Gremlin Theatre‘s current production, directed by Ellen Fenster, does not shy away from the play’s bleak subject matter. While the production is funny in parts, it is never lighthearted, something that would inevitably require turning at least some of the characters into caricatures. To sympathize with these characters is to feel their pain, and Fenster gives the audience the space to do so.

Rocket to the Moon, a relative rarity from a playwright who is more often talked about than produced, revolves around Ben Stark (Peter Christian Hansen), a dentist with a small practice in Manhattan in the summer of 1938. Ben has a dream of opening a specialist orthodontics practice in a more upscale part of town — something his wealthy father-in-law Mr. Prince (Craig Johnson) is prepared to support financially — but Ben’s wife Belle (Daisy Macklin Skarning), who is estranged from her father, prefers that he take the safer route of continuing to build his current practice. Ben, who has a reputation for spinelessness, gives in to Belle, but he also starts paying increasing attention to his very young new secretary, Cleo Singer (Jane Froiland).

Rocket to the Moon — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreThere are many traumas hanging over the heads of these characters. Ben grew up in an orphanage and Cleo in a crowded tenement. It is implied that Mr. Prince mistreated and abandoned Belle’s mother. Three years ago, Ben and Belle lost a child. And Ben’s office-mate, Phil Cooper (David Coral), has never recovered from his experiences in battle during World War I. The ways in which the characters deal with these traumas — which include repression, denial, deflection, and of course alcoholism — color their relationships with one another and particularly their attitudes toward the fraught subject of love.

Ultimately, when both Ben and Mr. Prince develop intense passions for Cleo, one gets the sense that their feelings have more to do with what she represents — youth, optimism, and a lack of inhibitions — than who she is. Though Cleo has her moments, particularly when debunking other people’s assumptions about and presumptions toward her, her personality could best be described as unfinished. The fact that both older men fall so hard for her renders them more than a little pathetic, and over the course of the play, one comes to hope she will realize this.

Among the Gremlin’s generally strong cast, Johnson deserves particular praise. While it certainly helps that Mr. Prince has some of the best lines in the play, Johnson’s simultaneously charming and uncompromising approach to the character leaves behind a distinct impression. Jason Rojas also stands out in the smaller role of Ben’s podiatrist friend Frenchy, who has his own half-cynical, half-idealistic notions about love. Overall, Rocket to the Moon proves to be yet another worthwhile entry in the Gremlin and Fenster’s ongoing exploration of the byways of 20th Century theater. Performances continue through June 1 at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis.

Photos by Aaron Fenster

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.