Written by Sean David Robinson; Directed by Ashleigh Millet-Goff
Part of the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.19.18
Theatre at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street
by Emily Cordes on 8.18.18
Selah Atwood and Courtney DeGennaro in Starbright.
BOTTOM LINE: A grieving astronomer’s visions challenge her perceptions of science and reality.
In the words of Starbright’s Grace (Courtney DeGennaro), science can appear magical to those who do not understand it, giving natural phenomena a supernatural mystique. The same can be said of our view of death: lacking concrete evidence of an afterlife or the soul’s continuation, our understanding of the topic is naturally speculative and shaped by private hopes and fears. Faced with personal loss and startling revelations, Starbright follows Grace as she confronts her pain and renegotiates her connection to self, family, and the larger universe.
Following the death of their young daughter Abby (Selah Atwood), Grace and her husband Calvin (Matt Burke) struggle to regain stability and move on with their lives. A grief-induced breakdown has cost Grace her astronomer position at a local university, endangering joint finances as Calvin juggles breadwinning and caretaking duties. Though their house’s impending sale promises renewal, Grace is reluctant to abandon Abby’s memory or the home in which they raised her.
While packing up her daughter’s old room, Grace has an unsettling vision of Abby, beckoning her mother to seek her amongst the stars. Seeing this as a sign from beyond, Grace clings to the experience and tries to reconnect with Abby’s spirit. A concerned Calvin seeks help from Claire (Molly Malone), Grace’s sister and psychologist, who views the sighting as a hallucination against which Grace should fight. Grace, however, finds herself pulled in deeper when Abby returns with predictions about the imminent birth of a star—the discovery of which could, if proved, help Grace reclaim her job and rise in her field. Invigorated by this prospect and her child’s reappearance, Grace throws herself into developing Abby’s theory. When her efforts breed scientific controversy and further strain her relationships, Grace must defend her sanity and revisit all she once held true.
Blending scientific discovery, human crisis, and supernatural elements, Starbright calls to mind epic films like Contact. On theatre’s smaller scale, these subjects can run hyperbolic, but Starbright’s cast gamely meets this challenge. DeGennaro’s Grace is layered and sympathetic in her efforts to find meaning in chaos. Frustrated and grief-stricken, she grasps at the renewed purpose Abby’s presence brings, even when doing so defies reason and upends her life on Earth. Burke is a likeable, grounded Calvin, devoted to Grace but losing patience as her delusions prevent them both from healing. Uncannily precocious and pleasantly creepy, child actress Selah Atwood keeps us questioning Abby’s reality; paired with Abby Judd’s celestial lighting, her revelations inspire as much wonder as unease. Despite her lapses into grating Freud impression, Malone rounds out a solid cast with a balance of clinical insight and sisterly concern.
Intriguing in concept, Starbright offers a fresh take on the limits of human perception and our interpretations of things we cannot grasp. Are Grace’s visions madness, or yet-unproven cosmic insight? Can suspension of disbelief open us to greater discovery, or trap us in projection and self-delusion? In our quest to understand this world and the next, such answers remain inconclusive, but, as the play suggests, our receptivity can breed wisdom, and, ultimately, healing.
(Starbright plays at the Theatre at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, through August 19, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are 8/16 at 8:30, 8/17 at 5, 8/18 at 8:30 and 8/19 at 5. Tickets are $25 online, $30 at the door. For more information visit broadwayboundfestival.com.)
Starbright is by Sean David Robinson. Directed by Ashleigh Millet-Goff. Lighting Design by Abby Judd. Sound Design by Ross Gentry. Production Stage Manager is Alison Tippins.
The cast is Courtney DeGennaro, Matt Burke, Selah Atwood, and Molly Malone.