The orbit of Saturn around the sun, completed every 29.5 years, lends a structure to Noah Haidle’s deeply affecting new work about loneliness and loss. In a program note, Haidle says that the return to its position at one's one's birth is associated with major turning points in a person’s life. For Gustin, portrayed at 28, 58, and 88, by, respectively, Robert Eli, James Rebhorn and John McMartin, they involve the conception of his daughter, her abandonment of him, and his impending death. In spite of minor flaws, the play is moving and beautifully acted by the cast—the fourth member is Rosie Benton, who plays all the women in Gustin’s life. Told in a reverse pattern, the episodes intertwine with subtle connections. They begin with McMartin’s aged Gustin engaging a visiting nurse, Suzanne (Benton). He has called her for company because he’s lonely. His wife, Loretta, and daughter, Zephyr, are long gone; the latter, he reveals, died in Mexico. He persuades the sympathetic Suzanne to make him some eggs for breakfast, “not too runny,” and she does. It’s a bit of a stretch to accept that a visiting nurse would do that, but in this case suspending disbelief brings its rewards.
On Saturn’s second return, a curmudgeonly but likable Gustin (Rebhorn) clings unhealthily to Zephyr. She has cared for him since she was 14, and he has smothered her with his paralyzing dependence on her, but now she plans to take a trip without him; he objects strenuously. She has also arranged a date for him with a woman named Bonnie—it’s part of her plan to set him off on a new phase of his life—and he’s deeply apprehensive. He disparages the fact that Bonnie is a bird-watcher.
The earliest segment visits the newlyweds Gustin and Loretta in 1948, when they are young and in love. He studies to be a doctor and she insists on making him breakfast (eggs, not too runny, of course). He proposes that she buy a new dress for an evening out at the symphony that night. Gradually Haidle’s skill at weaving the mundane threads of ordinary life into a textured dramatic fabric takes hold. The dress becomes a key element, and Bonnie, we learn incidentally, became Gustin’s friend and ended up in assisted living.
Subtler connections, like the eggs, also enrich the writing. Gustin likes to tell jokes, whatever his age. Loretta’s intrusive widowed mother, who telephones very early every morning, follows the migration of birds, and suddenly the reason for Gustin’s reluctance to meet Bonnie clicks: her hobby reminds him of his dead wife. And the young Gustin’s treatment of her mother’s loneliness comes back to haunt him: “Is there an end to grief? An end to tears?” he asks mockingly as Loretta speaks on the phone. By age 88, he has endured years of the same loneliness. “What a terrible plague memory is,” he says then.
In roundelay fashion, the scenes unfold, playing out in the aged Gustin’s mind and developing further the sad, inevitable story. Zephyr tries to leave, and Gustin pulls at her suitcase; it opens and he finds she is taking her mother’s dress, which he wants to keep. They fight. “You’re my whole life,” he tells her. “I don’t want to be,” she replies. By the end, all the ghosts are in the shabby yet comfortable living room (by Ralph Funicello), and the references to evening’s becoming night, and winter’s approach have taken on full metaphorical weight. (Even the two early-morning scenes occur before dawn; there’s always darkness waiting outside.) The ache of loss is enhanced by Mark Bennett’s score, evoking wistfulness, worry and uncertainty.
The flaws in director Nicholas Martin's confident production are small. Zephyr’s departure on the night of her father’s first date is too abrupt to be realistic. Rebhorn needs a toupee: it's distracting to wonder how a man at middle age could have thinning hair and at 88 have a full head of it (as McMartin does). And, as often happens with young writers, Haidle gives the aged Gustin coarse language that someone of his social status would not have indulged in, especially in the presence of a young woman he hardly knows.
But Haidle’s play evokes, like Beckett, the melancholy human condition with a romantic underpinning in the notion that only one true love in life exists. Gustin’s tragedy is that he clings to the past. But Saturn Returns is also a celebration of simple human connections—the feeling that someone somewhere is expecting you.