presented by Flat Earth Theatre
By Steven Dietz
Directed by Lindsay Eagle
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Watertown) The center of Rocket Man is the unraveling life of middle-aged divorcee, Donny (Robin Gabrielli), an unsteady center for an unassuming story. Flat Earth Theatre has certainly taken on a tough show to pull off well. Newly single and struggling to maintain his relationship with his teenage daughter, Trisha (Mariagrazia LaFauci), Donny is having a slow-moving breakdown. He fights back with fantasies of traveling to space and going to another reality where time travels backward and his wife, Rita (Korinne T. Ritchey), is still with him.
Donny’s friends, Louise (Juliet Bowler) and Buck (Scott Alan), are sympathetic toward his problems. They’re involved with their own unraveling, though, as Buck’s daydreams take a biblical turn and insomniac Louise takes seminary classes to become a minister. They’re all on the verge of renewal, junctures in which they get the chance to recreate their lives.
The first act juggles humor and the chasm of Donny’s despair but not always with success. Alan’s Buck offers limitless quips in a masterful delivery as he waxes poetic over his pet can and a bible he buried with his wife. Ritchey’s Rita, however, often comes off as shrill even though her grievances against Donny should have some weight. Her performance, along with the whole of Rocket Man, only solidifies in the second act where Donny’s troubles seemingly invert themselves. The emotional core becomes less dreary and suddenly luminescent.
Juliet Bowler absolutely owns the stage as Louise, first act or second. Bowler is consistently and wickedly funny as she tries to pull Donny out of his funk. Much like in The Pillowman, her presence fills the room. Her joyful performance also showcases a weary character dealing with her own baggage but not weighed down by it.
I tend to be wary of melodrama, specifically when it centers on a main character sorting through the mess he’s made for himself. It’s sometimes hard to feel bad for Donny. He feels like a man ready to cast himself out to sea as others try repeatedly to bring him back to shore.
The way in which Donny approaches his struggles feels new, though, specifically when Rocket Man becomes a different, more dazzling beast in its second half. Gabrielli invests a lot of warmth in developing his character. After intermission, Donny’s painfully acute awareness of what he’s lost and what he wishes to make for himself becomes appropriately moving.
Even though it struggles in its dramatic moments, Flat Earth Theatre has turned Rocket Man into a gem. While Donny seems set on dismantling his world and himself along with it, director Lindsay Eagles builds a place where we can examine his struggles. It’s a delicate and well-wrought piece of work, one worthy of an enthusiastic audience.