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“Pluto” at the Know Theatre effectively combines fantasy and stark reality

Wesley Carman as Bailey and Annie Fitzpatrick as his mother, Elizabeth, in the current production of "Pluto" at the Know Theatre
Know Theatre

"Pluto," a play at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio

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There are plenty of theatrical performances that you may like better than the Know Theatre’s current production of Pluto, but it’s not always the aim of theatre to make you like what you see on stage. Theatre should make you think, make you feel, and perhaps make you view the world a little bit differently when the performance is over. On all three of those counts, Pluto succeeds admirably.

The story, by Steve Yockey, is not an easy one, and the script is far from linear. The plot hinges on the audience gradually coming to understand what is going on, so any review of the play must be careful not to give too much away. Still, it’s fair to say that it is not a normal day in the Miller household. Like characters in a Vonnegut novel, Elizabeth and Bailey Miller are unstuck in time—or perhaps it would be better to say they are stuck in time, like flies caught in honey.

This allows a lot to happen in a very short period—much shorter, in fact, than the ninety minutes’ duration of the play. All the actors who carry the story forward are excellent, but Wesley Carman as an untethered young community college student is a standout. He is part of a generation grappling with issues of estrangement from a society that doesn’t seem to have a place for him. He manages to make his character one that you care about and empathize with, even as you learn that he has done something unforgivable.

Torrie Wiggins has an equally challenging role, that of Cerberus, a three-headed hell hound, but a sober, intelligent, and caring hell hound nonetheless. The Millers don’t know exactly where the dog came from, and the actor doesn’t wear a dog costume or have three heads—except in the imagination of the audience—yet she does an amazing job of invoking three-headed dogness while providing some of the more insightful lines in the play.

The cast also includes Annie Fitzpatrick as Bailey’s mother, who tries to make a connection with him as what little time that passes runs out. She manages well a series of emotional turns, none of them easy. Lauren Hayes plays a young classmate of Bailey's and is, in a sense, the catalyst for what happens. Ken Early, as Pluto, makes a dramatic entrance through a refrigerator while wearing an old-time diving suit, one of many spot-on design elements in the production. Pluto is the god of the underworld, functioning as a manifestation of Death, and he projects the proper gravity for the role without making it overpowering. It’s just another day on the job for him; in fact, he mentions that he moonlights at a few other jobs as well in some of the most devastating asides in the script.

The lightness of certain dialogue, the quips, and the Pop-Tarts are all calculated to make the darkness in the script even darker. The everyday quality of the nicely designed set by Andrew Hungerford, a typical suburban kitchen with an ominous door to the basement, has its own “elephant in the room”—a cherry tree growing down out of the ceiling. The tree is referenced but not explained; it’s open to interpretation, as is much of what goes on in the play. Even the quality of the light coming through the kitchen window is both ordinary and exceptional, looking exactly like sunlight on an early spring morning.

Pluto is the first play the Know has produced as part of the National New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere program, which allows playwrights to have new works produced in several regional theatres. This is the second production of four scheduled for Pluto, and if it is any indication of the caliber of work that will come to the Know from its participation in the program, this was a spectacularly good decision on the theatre company’s part.

Yockey has a way with words, and the director, Jason Bruffy, makes sure that the actors get the most out of the delivery of those words. The production is fast and slow, spare and lavish, funny and impossibly sad. It’s a tour de force, from the performances straight through to the makeup, which creates some startling effects, too. The play, in the end, does not explain, excuse, or condemn what has happened. Instead, it makes you think, and a week later, a year later, you will still be thinking about it—and that’s what theatre should do. It’s up to you to sort it all out, and this production of Pluto at the Know gives you quite a lot to think about.