In the midst of a frigid Minnesota winter, it might seem like a nice idea to escape to a play that takes place at the height of a beautiful Vermont summer.
That's the setting of The Aliens, but there's a crucial asterisk: This is no Green Mountain idyll. The entire piece takes place in a smelly break area by the trash bin (and recycling bin, and rain barrel) behind a coffee shop called the Green Sheep.
In Walking Shadow Theatre Company's production, now onstage at the Red Eye Theater, director John Heimbuch doesn't take verisimilitude so far as to waft the smell of rancid kombucha into the audience, but Erica Zaffarano's detailed set and Katharine Horowitz's accompanying sound design convincingly situate us outside the Green Sheep, with dishes crashing in an unseen sink and Ani DiFranco softly warbling through the screen door.
Here we meet Jasper (Paul Rutledge) and KJ (Paul LaNave), two 30-ish guys who you might call "scruffy" or you might just call "Vermonters." Get ready to settle in with these guys: For over two hours, we're on Jasper and KJ's timetable, and they're in no rush.
Jasper calls himself a "novelist," although his debut novel is still in progress. KJ is without an occupation; seemingly a recovering alcoholic, he lives with his mom and tries to stay on his meds. The two sit around and shoot the shit, befriending high school student Evan (Spencer H. Levin), who works at the Green Sheep when he's not at music camp.
The Aliens is one of two plays that earned Annie Baker the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play. The other is Circle Mirror Transformation, a more lively story that's been staged locally at the Guthrie Theater and Yellow Tree Theatre. Along with Body Awareness (2008), they form a trilogy set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont.
It's no wonder that Baker's won such acclaim; her work combines a patient realism (when KJ makes some mushroom tea, we watch the entire elaborate operation unfold) with the shameless use of theatrical devices that are well-worn — because they work. For example, when Evan picks up a guitar and claims he can't play well, it's no surprise when he stumbles his way to a forceful rendition of "If I Had a Hammer." Elsewhere in The Aliens, when a crucial piece of information is withheld, it's of course revealed at the most dramatic possible moment.
Heimbuch and his cast give this material a strong staging, with all three actors delivering disciplined performances that strike the right notes of levity and pathos. Offhand moments, like Evan's attempt to nonchalantly light a cigarette, come across nicely in the Red Eye's close quarters.
There's a lot here for the dedicated theater fan to enjoy, but you have to be patient with the production, and prepare yourself for moments of frustration and boredom along with the moments of levity and poignancy. It's kind of like... you know, life, man.
IF YOU GO:
Red Eye Theater
$10-$22; pay-as-able Monday
Through February 27