When it comes down to it, how much responsibility do we have to take care of our fellow human beings? And perhaps more vexingly, how much can we take care of our fellow human beings, especially those whose agency dictates they make choices that won't necessarily benefit them?
These are the questions left over after Ironweed's production of The Aliens, Annie Baker's remarkable play about friendship, isolation, estrangement and connection. Directed by Lynn Goodwin and starring three dependable local actors, the presentation also celebrates Ironweed's 15th anniversary in Santa Fe, and marks another phase in a sea change for the company.
Largely known for its intricate productions of scripts by dead white guys (think Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller), Ironweed is striking a new direction lately under the leadership of founder and artistic director Scott Harrison. Aiming now to tell stories more seldom expressed, The Aliens takes us to the back porch of a coffee shop in Vermont where three young men tell a different kind of coming-of-age story dominated by -mental illness, addiction and—for lack of a better word—heartbreak.
Mickey Dolan is Evan, a fresh-faced junior in high school who works at the shop (the play takes place out back, by the shop's garbage cans). He comes across KJ (Niko'a Salas) and Jasper (Matt Sanford), two vaguely college-age young men who have made the picnic table their default hangout spot, whether they're allowed there or not.
The setting itself is beautifully done here, thanks to set design consultant Chadney Everett and master carpenter Ben Barthell. The place is ultimately believable, down to the spatters of dirt on the purple siding of the building and the teabags hanging on the fence. (Oh, and don't be alarmed when you enter the theater and find yourself onstage; the door to the lobby becomes the door to the coffee shop, and vice versa.)
It's clear that Evan is a bit of a loner at school. Jasper and KJ seem at first to take the kid under their collective wings, chatting with him and singing songs and inviting him to parties…albeit all very awkwardly. Yeah, something isn't quite right here. But it doesn't become clear until the Fourth of July, when Jasper snatches a bottle of alcohol out of KJ's reach, and we learn more about the friends' struggles with homelessness, family estrangement and mental illness.
Salas and Sanford make a formidable pair as longtime buds whose friendship first appears fluffy and fun, but soon descends into darker territory. Especially remarkable is Salas' portrayal of KJ's dance on the brink of sanity; KJ is clearly an immensely intelligent and ultimately kind person, but we watch with trepidation as he reveals quirks and markers of his proximity to a mental break. He's full of kinetic energy, ready to jump out of his skin, and Salas has perfected that one dude we all know who seems neurotypical for the first five minutes of any given conversation, but soon reveals more complex inner workings. The benefit of a tiny theater is that we see it all face-to-face, too.
Jasper, despite quiet seething, tries his best to be the more stable one of the two—but soon hits his own wall. Sanford's depiction of the character's struggle between his own harsh reality and a beautiful escapist world he's created in his novel is masterful. My only hesitation with Sanford was that he seems too put-together, but isn't it the truth that we so often never even know about someone's demons until they're overtaken?
Dolan's Evan is ultimately lovable as the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid in desperate hopes of acceptance. He, along with an incredible script, perfectly captures the intensity of the high school brain. Everything matters, everything is important, everything is vital. Watching his emotional deflowering, as it were, is both sad and gratifying; he can't necessarily help Jasper or KJ, but dammit if he doesn't want to, and he'll sure remember everything his "best friends" did for him that summer behind the coffee shop.
Whether the summer was the best or the worst is for us to decide.
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays through March 22. $15-$25.
Teatro Paraguas Second Space,
3205-A Calle Marie,
ironweedsantafe.com; tickets here.