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'Darkside' Explores Deep Space Beyond and Within


HUNTINGTON BEACH — The song of choice for the fictitious Apollo 18 crew in Ken Jones' drama "Darkside," in its West Coast premiere at Huntington Beach Playhouse, is the R&B classic "Chain Gang." Slightly echoing the sentiments in Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff," Jones' astronauts have what it takes to go to the moon and back, but they also understand they're part of NASA's huge machine--"robots," as astronaut wife Gigi angrily calls them.

Jones' play and director Sharyn Case's staging attempt to burrow under the NASA machine, showing that the men of this last moon shot--Gunner Smith (Vince "Guido" Campbell), Ed Stone (Michael Piscitelli) and Bill Griffin (Kevin Deegan)--are hardly robotic at all, but entirely human.

Count "Darkside," which comes here from the Denver Center Theatre Company, as one more chink in NASA's once-glistening public facade.

Although hardly as profound as it seems to think it is, the play demonstrates in its time-altering narrative structure how conventional "Apollo 13" was as space drama. "Darkside" involves similar themes of astronauts' personal lives and in-flight crises, and it also suggests some of the extreme, even insanely extreme, stresses they endure. It speaks directly to us as we hear of another near-disaster on the hobbled space station Mir.

Orange County community theaters rarely stage plays that speak on so many levels; they host premieres even more rarely. With an ultra-minimal set by Ed Gates, this economical production offers a welcome alternative to the local theatergoing doldrums.

A present-to-flashback-to-present structure isn't the most promising way to tell a story, but Jacobs justifies it. Like Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins, Bill is stuck in lunar orbit while colleagues Ed and Gunner finish their lunar-surface exploration. Alone with his thoughts, his mind wandering to the point where he nearly sends his ship off course, Bill recalls life on Earth.


Back there, we meet Bill's understanding, stalwart wife, Beth (Molly Kincaid), and Ed's emotionally wobbly, sexually frustrated wife, Gigi (Ruth Berkowits). Gigi is the kind of pent-up character missing from "Apollo 13" and its ramrod-straight view of Apollo space culture. Jones is more interested in the costs paid by the astronauts' wives than even the training or procedures. Being married to "Spam in a Can"--as the original astronauts dubbed themselves--is just as tough as doing a lunar landing.

Unlike "Apollo 13," and in a dreaded dramatization of our collective fears about space travel, "Darkside" is interested in failure--personal, marital, astronautical. The cast isn't always able to carry this large dramatic load, as in Piscitelli's unbelievable panic attacks during training. But Deegan conveys a space soldier going off-course, nicely contrasted with Campbell's rock-hard approach as the crew commander.

Kincaid injects humanity into her nearly stock role, and Berkowits is able to let loose with emotional flourishes just when the show needs them.


* "Darkside," Huntington Beach Playhouse, Central Library Theatre, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8-$10. (714) 375-0696. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Kevin Deegan: Bill Griffin

Michael Piscitelli: Ed Stone

Vince "Guido" Campbell: Gunner Smith

Ruth Berkowits: Gigi Stone

Molly Kincaid: Beth Griffin

Paul Castellano: CAPCOM-Houston

Larry Freilick: Reporter

A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of Ken Jones' play. Directed by Sharyn Case. Set: Ed Gates. Lights: John Fejes. Sound: David Overcash and Gates. Costumes: Landee Lockhart.

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