As Sundown, Yellow Moon opens, two sisters in their twenties, Ray (Liz Chidester) and Joey (Diana Coates), have returned to their small hometown in Tennessee to support their father, Tom (Will Casey), as his life seems to be falling apart following his divorce. Ray is undergoing a bit of a reckoning herself after quitting her job — and Joey, petrified at the thought of leaving the country for a foreign study, takes comfort in long runs in the woods late at night.
The script from Rachel Bonds is extremely character-driven; there is not much plot to be found. I have heard some criticism calling this show a bit meandering and slow — which I can’t refute, exactly, except to say that slowness can soar to great heights when done with intention, and I found it absolutely sublime here. Director Cody Estle has managed to craft an evening of enthralling, intimate moments with attention and care, such that Sundown, Yellow Moon feels engrossing and urgent despite its quietness, and stillness.
A huge part of this can be put down to the cast’s electrifying chemistry with each other. Liz Chidester plays Ray as an uncommonly empathetic sort of person — she really seems to feel what her dad is going through, and her interactions with him are adorable; endless fun to watch. Will Casey’s Tom, by contrast, is a man defined by his inability to express his emotions well. He clearly loves both his daughters, but he shows it by joking or snapping irritably — and it’s even more fun to watch him bump against the emotional walls he’s set up as he works through his problems with his court-appointed therapist Carver (played with a pensive, almost tragic air by Jordan Dell Harris). Carver and Ray, meanwhile, strike up a heartwarming friendship after barely knowing each other in high school.
The meatiest part of the play, however, comes from a subplot where Joey, in the course of her nighttime excursions, encounters Ted (Josh Odor), a sensitive married poet from the nearby university. The chemistry between Odor and Coates here can only be described as sizzling. As they discuss life and love and adventure and daring, and become inextricably drawn to each other, Bonds’ beautiful prose really jumps to the forefront. While dialogue in scenes with Ray, Carver, and Tom hews realistic and natural, dialogue between Ted and Joey feels like poetry; there is a savage beauty to it that makes the audience feel, quite viscerally, the excitement and danger of the affair.
This polarity, between the grounded and the heightened, is accentuated nicely by the scenic and lighting design. Raven’s East Stage is an unusually wide space for a blackbox, and set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec uses it well. Tom’s house is on the left, made of thin and worn kitchen cabinets, a rusty refrigerator, and a screen door that has seen better days. On the right we see the forest where Joey goes to run and swim — represented not by literal trees, but by long wooden planks that run floor to ceiling. These planks do delightful things when they interact with the lighting design from Becca Jeffords; as spooky blue or green light shines at odd angles from the back of the stage, the tree-planks cut it up into deep, dark shadows. This is again in contrast to Tom’s house, which for most of the play exudes a consistent warm orange glow, accentuating the perceived stability and comfort of home.
The music throughout the show (The Bengsons) is lovely, used sparingly and to great effect. Sundown is more of a play with music than a musical, with characters singing only in situations where it would make sense to sing in real life. Still, music director Andra Velis Simon’s signature style is easy to spot; excellent singing technique is hidden behind (and plays second string to) believable human emotion. This is a play where characters in their darkest moments use music to lift themselves up — in one particularly moving scene, Carver plays guitar and sings a song to Ray as they both sit on the porch, and you can physically see the stress and worry leave his body, and a smile spread across his face.
Other than all that, though, I find it strangely difficult to describe how I feel about this show; I’d be hard-pressed to tell you its themes, exactly. I can only say that Sundown, Yellow Moon feels irrepressibly human. The characters feel painfully real, their desires achingly relatable — and so the quiet contemplation, the silence that hangs over each scene, is deafening. This show feels like an intimate secret whispered into your ear as you sit by a roaring campfire on a cold night. It is the type of story that makes you want to walk out your front door, and just keep walking, keep going for hours and hours, as the sun sets. It is the kind of show that makes you grateful to be alive in this wide, beautiful, horrible, wonderful, incomprehensible world, as you look up at the sky and lose yourself in the awe and enormity of it all.
Sundown, Yellow Moon runs at Raven Theatre until November 17th.
Jeanne T. Arrigo as Jean
Will Casey as Tom
Diana Coates as Joey
Liz Chidester as Ray
Rob Frankel as Bobby
Jordan Dell Harris as Carver
Josh Odor as Ted
Jason O’Donnell (u/s Bobby)
Chris Farrell, Jr. (u/s Carver)
Carmen Liao (u/s Joey)
Robin West (u/s Ray)
Written by Rachel Bonds
Music & Lyrics by The Bengsons
Music Director: Andra Velis Simon
Director: Cody Estle
Stage Manager: Wilhelm Peters
Set Designer: Jeffrey D. Kmiec
Costume Designer: Izumi Inaba
Lighting Designer: Becca Jeffords
Sound Designer & Composer: Eric Backus
Dialect Coach: Elise Kauzlaric
Props Designer: Mealah Heidenreich
Technical Director: Bobby Huggins
Assistant Director: Ashley Brenon
Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Nagorski
Assistant Costume Designer: Ian Liberman
Artistic Producer: Cole von Glahn