“These are strange times,” a teacher of mathematics tells one of his students in the first scene of “Icarus, or an Angel,” the new play from Anthony Smith ’11 opening in the ’92 Theater this weekend; strange times they are indeed, and a multitude of times, in this genre-bending, decade-spanning collection of vignettes from Wesleyan’s premier student playwright. Flexible and contemplative, the two-person show explores a series of relationships that span from 1861 to 2008 in a set of five short vignettes that each have compelling stories, although the show as a whole seems to lack a sense of unity.
Over all of these vignettes, the figure of Icarus—the mythological boy who flew with wings built by his father, but fell when he came too close to the sun—looms. One boy is going off to fight in the Civil War, and tells his father that there are rumors that the South has an angel with a flaming sword on their side. One hundred and forty years later, an embittered Southern director-writer creates an original piece of theatre centered on the fate of the boy (coincidentally, the son of a craftsman and named Icarus) who pretended to be that angel. In 1961, a math teacher walks a fine line with one of his young pupils on the beach when he is distracted by a vision of a young boy, dead with holes in his back, apparently falling from the sky. A young man responds to the pupil’s plea for help and, 28 years later, this young man—once gay, but “not any more”—has become the leader of a cult. Another 19 years down the line, the pupil from the first scene is in his own relationship with a young man—this one a college freshman and not, at least to our knowledge, his student—and is embittered and distanced from the world beyond. Each of these five is a moving piece of theatre.
But what do they mean? This is the question that perpetually dogs me. As theatre, “Icarus” is excellent: the set from Evan DelGaudio ’12 is spare but evocative, building on itself (and including a twelve-foot-square sandbox!) to call each locale to mind with the lightest of touches. The lighting from Sam Long ’12 is also capable, simple but appropriate, and at times evocative (there is a poignant use of blacklights in one scene). The costumes by Alyssa Lanz ’12 are perfectly correct, and the two actors—Thomas Lee ’13 in the younger roles and Timothy Dodds ’11 in the older—handle the variety of roles with aplomb and tact.
The play also keeps us engaged by swapping genres and styles with each scene. Some are character studies (the opening scene particularly), some have clear elements of farce (the director in 2001, who concludes his civil war play with, “Thank you, in advance, for immortality!” comes to mind), and one is, in essence, a single long monologue that is both an engaging emotional portrait and a lecture-style exposition on the character’s worldview. If there’s one thing Smith does well, it’s to combine serious moments with light-hearted ones, and deliver some of the most blatantly didactic themes in farce. He’s also an excellent director. The show is staged in the round—an unusual and difficult staging for the ’92 Theater—and very few moments were lost, at least from where I was sitting.
And yet I can’t quite understand the through-line of the stories. Generational conflict is a regular feature, as is, of course, the figure of Icarus. But what does that figure represent? A beautiful, fallen creature, clearly: a creature who has dropped out of the sky, unannounced and unexpected—a mystery. Perhaps it is the destruction of the beautiful and mysterious that “Icarus” mourns—for it is a mournful play, with a pervading sense of melancholy. We live in an age with little mystery left, but the mysterious can be a source of inspiration; as the didactic cult leader in the third story says, “We believe in the thing that makes you believe in God…even more than that, we believe in the thirst.” That thirst has perhaps been replaced with cynicism, with technology, with dominance. Perhaps we’re becoming too much like the fiery young man in 1861 who faces down the idea of death fearlessly, confident in his own ability. “How do you kill an angel with a flaming sword?” he asks. “Easy. Real easy. You shoot him.”