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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Moon Cave — Azuka Theatre at Off-Broad Street Theater

untitled (48)Douglas Williams’s world premiere play, “Moon Cave,” is so engrossing, thought-provoking, and fulfilling to watch develop, it is a jarring shock when it ends so abruptly and seemingly so unresolved.

One minute you’re absorbed by the aching struggle of a young man who might be on the brink of some release from the mental prison in which he has placed himself, the next you’re wondering where Williams’s play went and why he has left it unfinished.

If that’s what he did.

Ambivalent endings have been in style for decades now. Beyond being a trend, it’s often considered a sign of literary maturity to keep an audience unsure of what actually happened. Williams curtails “Moon Cave” so suddenly, the possibilities for what happened, or what might happen next, are endless.

Kevin Glaccum’s tight, atmospheric direction adds to the clues. A college-age girl of high spirit who persists in trying to drag the stymied youth from his almost hermetic shell, a girlfriend if you will, one who is ready to introduce the man to her parents, fades slowly and completely into the background and into total darkness created when floor-length black curtains obscure two walls of her apartment, where “Moon Cave” is set.

Did the woman become discouraged by the boy’s setbacks and disappear from his life? Was she a figment of a paranoid schizophrenic’s wishful imagination? Did the man drive her off by scaring in addition to continually disappointing her?

Wha’ happened?

We can only guess, although someone involved with Azuka Theatre’s production of “Moon Cave” told me Williams has a definite, concrete intention.

Once I make a possible fool of myself by surmising what that might be in Williams’s mind within the body of this review, I will wait avidly to be told the error or sagacity of my ways. I’m betting on error.

Not that it matters.

The brusque ending may have filched a scooch of  satisfaction from the first work of Williams’s ever produced by a professional theater, but it can’t take away from, or eradicate the escalatingly gripping drama Williams devised or the captivating quality of Glaccum’s staging. “Moon Cave” looks like a rare find, the chance to hear an original, evocative voice for the first time. It impresses, even during instances when you see the craft behind its structure or have questions based on information the characters have revealed. For instance, if Derek, the young man, is so tortured by being out in public for fear he’ll be recognized because of a heinous incident from his early adolescent years, how can he hold a job as a doorman at a popular dance club that is frequented by his alleged classmates from Temple University? How can he attend classes at a university, or anywhere for that matter?

Those questions, asked while “Moon Cave” was in progress, add to the mystery and possible deductions promulgated by that lights-out-that’s-that ending. Williams’s play stays with you after you leave the theater. It makes you examine all of its elements to see where they lead or to assemble clues that pin down exactly what Williams was trying to convey. Or, maybe, fill in the gaping blanks he left.

In this way, “Moon Cave” fascinates as you watch it and as you decipher it. (Calling Alan Turing! Or Hedy Lamarr!)

All along, Williams plots sequences that make you think. The scene in which Derek meets Rachel at a bar, the one that we come to believe is the one at which he works, is re-enacted several times, each repetition offering more detail and information or varying in some significant way that makes you wonder which rendition is accurate. Or whether we’re seeing vestiges of Derek’s addled mind.

The bar itself has a strange, perhaps ironic, name for a play set near a college campus today, The Republican. (One can imagine ultra-liberal Temple prohibiting entrance to a bar so named.) One can also imagine, during post-play analysis — overanalysis? — that the club may be a hallucination, that all of what’s depicted in “Moon Cave” occurs within Derek’s mind and has no actual bearing in reality at all.

After all, another question is why Rachel pursues Derek after he has brushed her off or behaved so peculiarly that she has to consider whether he is a puzzle worth solving or a man about which she can care.

Williams covers this by having Rachel, in her jovial way, say she is direct and says what she thinks. There is also the maternal instinct that runs strong in young women who encounter a troubled waif who looks desperately in need of affection and understanding.

NealBoxWilliams may be playing games, a la Pinter or Albee, but even if he is, he’s accomplished something remarkable. He wrote a play that is involving as you watch it, one that makes you want to go with every twist or recurring scene, and one you truly want to figure out once you have time to reflect on its intentional inconsistencies and fast fare-thee-well.

I’ve played a bit of a game myself.

I’ve referred to the male character as Derek, the name he uses to baffle people who might hone in on his actual identity and past and the name he gives to Rachel when he introduces himself to her.

The young man’s name is actually Richard Joseph Turner, a moniker he supposes will strike fear and revulsion in the hearts of anyone who hears it because he or she is certain to remember a sad episode in the boy’s past when he killed another child who was tormenting him.

See what I mean by Williams toying with us. Richard Turner, with or without the Joseph, is too common a name for anyone to associate it with one particular person. Even Rachel, who seems to be attuned to the world around her, has no reaction when Richard tells her the truth and his life story. Like people with a blemish or a splash of salad dressing on their jacket, Richard may self-consciously exaggerate the effect of his name and history on other people. He may expect a more severe reaction than he is likely to get. Especially since he is now an adult, age 27, and would not necessarily resemble any picture dating from the time of his offense. It’s interesting too that Richard, confessional as he tends to be to Rachel, never talks about the consequences of the murder he committed. He never speaks about being institutionalized or in therapy or if he was left relatively free from adjudication because he acted in what could be construed as self-defense.

“Moon Cave” is so evocative, it’s driven me to write more about what isn’t in it that what is. Isn’t that a laudable achievement?

Yes, Douglas Williams, it is.

“Moon Cave” opens in Rachel’s bedroom. The engaging Taysha Canales shows us a Rachel whose reading turns into enthusiastic dancing as her iTune outweighs whatever she’s perusing on her Apple computer screen, and Canales shows some choreographically fierce moves as Rachel enjoys her music.

At one point, the earphone cord escapes from the its computer hookup and spreads the soulful sounds to which Rachel is grooving throughout the room. All of a sudden something stirs, and Richard rustles out of the sheets and comforter on Rachel’s bed.

He seems furtive and a bit nonplussed. He makes an excuse that he must rush because he’ll be late for a class, forgetting he admitted to Rachel he has never matriculated at Temple and is not actually a student there.

She calls him on this and reminds him of other misinformation he tried to peddle when they met at The Republican. “Derek” is mentioned along with other particulars about which Richard initially lied, and then recanted.

Richard, Rachel decides, has a need for someone to know him, a need to talk to someone about his life and experiences. Rachel is curious and attracted to Richard enough to be that person. The boy obviously harbors some secret that affects his life. Like the audience, Rachel wants to learn what that is and to help Richard get past it.

Matters don’t take an easy turn. Richard has taken Rachel’s telephone number, although the only access he has to phones are at odd places he’s mapped all across Philadelphia, even a West Kensington neighborhood where neither he nor Rachel is likely to go (unless they want drugs). He’s taken the number but he hasn’t called, something Rachel points out in instructive detail when she encounters Richard checking I.D. outside The Republican more than a week after their night in bed.

Rachel’s etiquette lesson, and kindness, lead to a kind of relationship. She and Richard enter The Republican to dance, but Richard disappears without bidding Rachel ‘good night.’

Rachel is once again perplexed, but Richard explains he is followed wherever he goes and must leave any place where his nemesis might be.

More and more comes out about Richard’s past. More and more, Rachel wants to guide him towards both reality and normality.

Her work, if she succeeds, will take time. Richard is entrenched in his paranoia. He is a walking thesis waiting for Ph.D. candidate in psychology to write. Williams has crafted a detailed portrait of a man who might be haunted by his past or might be living a fantasy. In either case, he lives in paranoid bondage that precludes anything close of a conventional life, Rachel’s willingness to provide one  or not. “Moon Cave” unfolds in a way in which its scenes can be taken literally, even the recurring episodes depicting Richard and Rachel’s meeting. And it demands that all Williams, and Glaccum, have carefully presented be thought about and hashed over if one wants “Moon Cave” to come to a satisfying conclusion.

Or four.

As Richard reveals more and more, we become increasingly suspicious. Then, Williams takes us off the scent in a sequence in which it seems time, possibly months, have passed, and Richard is ready to encounter more of the world and even have dinner with Rachel’s family. For a new playwright, he has the knack for leading you down one path, then pulling the rug or complicating the plot.

“Moon Cave” enthralls on several levels. Cogitating about why Williams has Colin McIlvaine’s realistic set turn into a dark cave-like space, and Glaccum has Canales, as Rachel, drift,  backwards, into unseen oblivion, only extends the spell. Considering more than one idea about myriad passages makes it all the more enchanting.

Whether “Moon Cave’s” ending comes with a jolt or not, the 85 minutes you spend with Richard and Rachel are intense and beguiling. Glaccum and his actors have you riveted to every move and keenly interested in all that happens, logical or not. This is a textured, absorbing production of an arresting work and well worth the investment to see all that you can make of it.

Kevin Meehan and Taysha Canales have amazing rapport as Richard and Rachel. As an ensemble of two, they are always in synch and seem even to have individual collections of looks and expression that are tantamount to their own private communication.

Canales is especially adept at using her eyes interrogatively. Her Rachel looks at Richard with two kinds of challenge. One says, “Come on, take a chance. Be as adventurous and open to life as I am.” The other says, “Oh, really? Tell me another one.”

Canales makes Rachel so vibrant and so determined. This is hard woman to resist, especially when she shows such willingness to be patient and to rouse Richard out of his agoraphobic torpor.

Meehan is also a master of expression. His face is a study of Richard’s moods, contemplations, and confusion. You see so much of what is going on by paying attention to the various turns of the head, settings of the mouth, or staring Meehan uses to portray Richard in depth. These facial communications show a man in turmoil, one who sometimes doesn’t know how he is supposed to react or whom he is supposed to be. They are especially poignant when Richard is alone or isolating himself from Rachel while being in the same room as her.

The actors are convincing as students who are slightly past the age of most of their classmates. Even in a play that may twist reality, Meehan and Canales exude authenticity. They embody their characters more than performing them.

Colin McIlvaine’s set is simple but gives the message Rachel lives modestly but contentedly is the small apartment she is willing to share with Richard when he is inclined to stay with her. A stage-right door handily serves as the entrance to The Republican. A stage-left shelf works in felicitously as the club’s bar.

Kevin Meehan is a great quick-change artist. In one motion he can put on or take the off the hoodie over the flannel shirt Katherine Fritz designed for Richard. Fritz has a sure sense of how Richard and Rachel would look and dress.

Joseph Glodek’s lighting is like a third character, creating the mood and even giving an occasional sense of the world into which Richard retreats when he recalls or chooses to summon his childhood trauma. Nick Kourtides’s sound design is full of whispers that underscore Richard’s guilt and self-recrimination, a bit of Bergman to go with the Pinter.

Or is an adult trauma hiding behind a childhood fantasy?

The ending may come before we want it — Williams seems to have so much more to tell — and I, among others, might indulge in going beyond Williams’s text while thinking about “Moon Cave,” but the play and Glaccum’s production for Azuka are their own reward. Take advantage!

“Moon Cave” runs through Sunday, March 22, produced by Azuka Theatre at Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom Street (17th and Sansom), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25, with discounts for seniors and people in the theater industry, and can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or by visiting www.azukatheatre.org.

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