“Satellites” starts with an intriguing premise. Mike, an astronaut, left on a mission seven years ago. Three days into the flight, though, something went wrong. His ship lost power and he started drifting through space. He was presumed dead.
After more than six years, though, of no communication with anyone on Earth, his ship landed in South America — with him on it, perfectly healthy. How did this happen? He can’t say. He has no memory of anything past the first four months of the mission. His ship was being pulled toward the sun, and he was feeling great heat. “I heard voices, and I woke up here,” he says, now back on Earth. “That’s it. There’s no in-between. There’s no memory of getting from one place to the other.”
This huge cosmic conundrum, though, is not the main point of “Satellites,” the two-actor play by Erin Breznitsky that is making its world premiere, with direction by John J. Wooten, at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center at Kean University in Union. It’s really about the relationship between Mike, played by Terrell Wheeler, and his wife Katherine, played by Ellyn Heald.
The play starts with their first meeting after his re-appearance on the planet, and is full of flashbacks to earlier points in their courtship and marriage. Stylish projections by Paul Deziel serve as backdrops for each scene quite effectively, whether the setting is mundane (a home, a library) or more exotic (a beach, outer space).
To say the ordeal that Mike and Katherine have gone through has put a strain on their relationship is an understatement. Mike can’t seem to pull himself out of a confused haze and just get on with his life. Katherine, a marine biologist, does not know how to deal with the irrational anger she has felt for years about Mike, for disappearing. “I am so mad at you … so fucking mad at you I could scream until my skin melts off,” she says in a flashback scene in which she sends a message for him into space, while he is gone, in the hopes that somehow it will reach him.
They are like satellites, attracted to each other yet stuck in their own orbits.
It’s a fine idea for a play, But still, “Satellites” didn’t really ring true for me.
Seven years is a long time, granted. But not as long as Breznitsky makes it out to be. Katherine (who has not remarried or had a serious relationship since Mike’s disappearance) and Mike (who should feel like he’s only been away for four months) seem like strangers in their reunion meeting: Any relief or love or joy that they feel is buried so deep that we can hardly see it. They’re reluctant to even hug.
“I feel like I should hug you or something. But I just …,” Katherine says.
“Yeah, me too,” Mike mumbles.
“I’m scared to,” she says. “I don’t know why.”
And it doesn’t seem believable when, a little later, Katherine fills him in on the vacations she and their children have taken — once a year, while he’s been away — and she says she’s compensating for the fact that “my family never traveled.” They’re married and have a family of their own: He should know that already. It would have come up before.
Also, I felt that the two-actor format creates some frustrating limitations. Katherine and Mike have a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son (meaning they were 6 and 3, respectively, when Mike disappeared). I would think that Mike would desperately want to see them, and spend every possible moment with them. But while Katherine and Mike do talk about them at several points in the play, we never see them, and that felt strange to me.
And with only two actors, it’s difficulty to show the enormity of what Mike has been through. l mean, this isn’t just an astronaut returning from a long mission. This is someone who has just gone through the most amazing thing that has happened to anyone in the history of the human race.
We live in the world where a submersible accident can mesmerize the media for weeks. What has happened to Mike is an infinitely bigger story: Imagine if someone who had been presumed dead on the Titan emerged from the bottom of the ocean, seven years later, with no idea what had happened to him. Same basic thing.
Yet there is little in the play to give us a sense that there is any commotion in the world outside Katherine and Mike’s house. Take away the back story and they could be any married couple, having trouble connecting.
Which, perhaps, is part of Breznitsky’s point. She is not a science fiction writer. She is interested only in Katherine and Mike, and the subtleties of their relationship. His re-emergence sets the story in motion, but is not really part of the plot, and is never explained.
This is, ultimately, a very Earthbound play — a so-real-it-hurts depiction of a relationship in which both people feel lost and are looking to create a way forward together — and that is not what I expected from something that starts with a jaw-dropping miracle in space.
Premiere Stages presents “Satellites” at Kean University in Union through July 30; visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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