Everyone’s having trouble sleeping in Rachel Bonds’ wide-eyed new “nighttime play with music,” Sundown, Yellow Moon. Whether caused by nostalgia or longing, their insomnia drives them out into the woods. Unlike Sondheim and Lapine’s fairytale archetypes with their specific, measurable goals, however, Bonds’ messy humans are chasing a much more elusive ghost: peace.
Twins Ray (Lilli Cooper) and Joey (Eboni Booth) have returned from New York to the rural Southern college town they grew up in to visit their father, Tom (Peter Friedman), before Joey travels to Berlin for two years on a Fulbright scholarship. Ray is a songwriter who has hit a dry spell. The overachieving Joey isn’t sure she really wants to go to Berlin. Tom is on forced leave from his teaching job but is being cagey with his daughters about why the conservative headmaster has put him on probation. His anger-management counselor, Carver (JD Taylor), visits him at home and even parks outside his house at night while he sleeps. If that seems a bit strange, it’s meant to be: Carver got involved with a priest in high school, and refuses to leave town, despite the stain of his youthful indiscretion. He’s a natural caregiver, but something feels a bit off about him. It doesn’t help that his high school band, the Moonlight Miles, has hit it big.
This rich mélange of motivations and desires is further complicated by the arrival of Ted Driscoll (Greg Keller), a poet of negligible renown whose long-ago visit to the high school still resonates with Joey. Ted teaches at the college now, but his wife, more successful than he, is off on a book tour.
Sadness and regret can be minefields of sentiment and navel-gazing on stage, but Sundown, Yellow Moon navigates them with an invigorating lightness of touch; it is remarkable that a story so defined by disappearances, holes, and unknowns can feel so energizing. Some credit is due to the songs by The Bengsons, whose recent semi-autobiographical operetta Hundred Days at the Public’s Under the Radar Festival (also directed by Sundown’s Anne Kauffman) was a showcase for their particular brand of earnest/playful, twee/guttural folk pop. Their music here floats in and out of the characters’ world through Leah Gelpe’s expressionistic sound design.
Though not an out-and-out musical, the play does employ some hallmarks of musical theater, especially its representation of community. One is able to chart the changes in Ray, Joey, and Tom’s dynamic by the way each responds to the music; sometimes it isolates them, but more often it welcomes wayward members back into the circle of love and care. A scene near the end when Ray and Carver finally sing again is one of the most touching in the play.
Lauren Helpern’s cascading set and Isabella Byrd and Matt Frey’s nighttime lights complement Gelpe’s sound. Borders, like time and memory, are fluid. The different frames leak into each other; without walls, Tom’s house feels like part of the forest that surrounds it.
The building blocks of the story, on the other hand, are nothing new. Characters’ burdensome pasts have been grist for classical Western drama for centuries. Yet what sets Sundown, Yellow Moon apart is a contemporary sensibility. The threat of violence, especially against women and children, hangs over everything, yet the play never bogs down in polemics. Ray’s sexuality and the twins’ bi-racial identity are acknowledged, but are not central to the narrative. Sundown, Yellow Moon lays claim to a pluralistic ideal of a world where perceived difference is recognized, even celebrated, but ultimately unimportant. Traces of the past always remain, but they’re only part of the complex, evolving story. Whether or not that reflects the world as it is or a pie-in-the-sky optimism may depend on the baggage you carry into the theater with you, but whatever you bring, you leave Sundown, Yellow Moon unburdened.
Ars Nova and WP Theater's production of Rachel Bonds’ Sundown, Yellow Moon plays through April 1 at the McGinn/Cazale Theater (Broadway between 76th and 77th Street). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are select Saturdays at 3 p.m. For tickets and information, visit arsnovanyc.com/sundown_yellow_moon.