Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a group of people on a space station in the far reaches of the galaxy faces unexplained (and possibly dangerous?) alien life, threats from within, and their own emotions. I know: that seems to be the core of pretty much every space opera since at least Alien, with its added human beings are greedy, short-sighted bastards and corporations are even worse themes. No such theme resides in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of David Grieg’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, which stays in close focus on its core astronaut team and their potential First Contact. There is something about this story (which has spawned three film adaptations) that transcends the standard stuck-in-space-with-aliens genre it is connected to. Directed by Scott Weinstein, Solaris is the rare science fiction tale that, despite its setting, keeps itself, its characters, and its themes down-to-Earth.
In a space station in orbit around the fictional planet Solaris, a small contingent of scientists (TJ Thomas, Nicole Laurenzi, and Larry Baldacci) is engaging in a long-term study of the planet, looking for signs of life and seeking to understand more about outer space. Solaris is a beautiful planet, orbiting two distinctly different stars at close range in a kind of figure-eight and possessing a magnificent planet-covering ocean consisting mostly of liquid nitrogen, and their mission seems benign. In its second year, though, some of the crew are experiencing strange, inexplicable phenomena: “visits” from odd creatures and even doppelgängers of people they have known…all physically there and all made of the same stuff as the sea below them. What is going on? Are they hallucinating? Is this some kind of group psychosis? Or are there forces at play that they have simply never encountered before?
Responding to the lack of any kind of communication from the station for months, a psychologist/astronaut named Kelvin (Isa Arciniegas) arrives at the station to find one crew member dead and the others deeply unnerved by what has been happening to them. It doesn’t take long before Kelvin, too, is part of whatever is going on, as she runs into a small child (played alternately by Kajsa Allen and Alexandrya Salazar) who, it seems, isn’t actually there, and then—even more strangely—a former lover named Ray (John Drea). Like the others before her, she is forced to deal with the shock of these “visitors” as well as her emotions at seeing Ray, who is dead, “alive” again.
I could praise the actors’ strong performances (and they all deserve it as the characters dig their ways through all sorts of conflicting emotions and relationships both present and past) but this is one show that truly belongs to the designers. Joe Schermoly’s set is perhaps the best space-based set I’ve come across: all silver-colored with hidden compartments and sleekly sliding walls, it just feels like a space station. Add to that some wonderfully creative sound design by Eric Backus and perfect lighting by Brandon Wardell, and you have as close to an outer-space experience as you are ever likely to have in a small theatre. Throw in some Izumi Inaba’s quite realistic costumes (including nifty compact space suits and a bespoke logo for the mission that is so realistic and on-brand that it makes you wish the whole thing were real), carefully created or curated props from Ivy Treccani, and some lovely, enigmatic projections (explained only very late in the play) by Yeaji Kim, and this play really sets a mood. It also illustrates why Intimacy Directors are now a requirement on productions, as Courtney Abbott helps make the Kelvin/Ray scenes come alive. About the only decision that took me out of the moment was the one that left this futuristic crew using technology (including CDs, VHS tapes, and old-style camcorders and sound boards) that are already obsolete in 2021. I’m sure that the script must have called for them, and probably Weinstein and Treccani agonized over the choice, which is applied consistently, but ultimately it just felt bizarre and wrong.
In the end, the characters make intensely personal choices that audiences are sure to talk about as they leave, along with a potentially uncomfortable perspective on the old Star Trek Prime Directive: is it possible that even the act of observation itself has unanticipated consequences? Since quantum physics postulates that, in fact, it does, do we even have any right to “boldly go where no one has gone before”?
Solaris is playing at the Raven Theatre through March 27; tickets are available at the Griffin Theatre website.