It was very nearly six years ago that New Jersey Repertory Company — the Upper Wet Side’s only playhouse dedicated entirely to new and challenging works for the stage — hosted the world premiere of a “gritty, blues infused fairytale” called Tilt Angel.
A nightmarishly surreal, absurdist Southern gothic about a socially reclusive young man, his neglectful father, his pining for his lost mother (who somehow manages to get reincarnated as a large house plant) and a divine intervention in the form of a tattered, filthy seraph, the Dan Deitz play offered up such jarring imagery and literalized phobias as a giant black telephone, a home-crafted prosthetic claw, travel by telephone lines and an evil “garden” of seething tubes from which a big skeletal hand emerges to drag our hero to his fate.
Of course we couldn’t rave enough about the show — still one of the most amazing things we’ve seen on local stages in our years as a professional theater critic — to anyone who wouldn’t cross to the other side of the street when we approached. But, as NJ Rep executive producer Gabe Barabas noted with a wry chuckle years later, this Angel laid a big old deviled egg at the box office as nothing before or since. Like, TILT, game over.
We only dredge up these painful memories because the production, in its own way, served to plant the seed for Donna Orbits the Moon, a show that enters its world premiere engagement this week as the latest in the “neverending season” of original entertainments at the downtown Long Branch oasis of culture. Written by actor-turned-playwright Ian August and starring Andrea Gallo — respectively the son and the mother on Tilt Angel‘s family tree — the one-woman play goes up for two days of previews on Thursday, September 8; opens on September 10 and continues through September 25.
Directed by Marc Geller (who recently helmed an acclaimed NYC staging of Noir, by Middletown’s own Stan Werse), Donna also serves to inaugurate the re-branded Second Stage performance space at NJ Rep — a space formerly named after local newsmaker Solomon Dwek (and sanded off in the tradition of things named after Michael Ritacco, Enron and Saddam).
For Highland Park resident Ian August, the new play would appear to launch the second stage of his career — but, far from representing a rookie effort by an earnest wannabe Williams or Starbucks Stoppard, Donna is one of FIVE full-length, award-winning scripts that the busy writer has completed and seen performed in public since he more or less retired from acting five years ago (this in addition to dozens of one-act playlets).
One of those previous plays, the drama Missing Celia Rose, was chosen for staging at NYC’s prestigious Summer Play Festival from a field of more than a thousand submitted scripts — and another, the showbiz-insider comedy Submitted by C. Randall McCloskey, just wrapped a critically lauded stint at the New York International Fringe Festival in a production that starred Brian O’Halloran of Clerks and other Kevin Smith specialties.
As for Donna Orbits the Moon, well, it’s being pitched like so: “Something is not quite right with Donna: She’s a loving mother, a devoted wife, and a minor celebrity to all the bake sale planners in town — but something is making her spacey, and she’s not sure what it is. Therapy is out of the question — and church isn’t the place to share one’s distress. Donna will need to pass through space and through time — all the while listening to an unlikely voice — and try to break free from her gravitational pull to learn just how she can land.”
We reckon that the above description still only scratches the surface of this piece, and as for the author, well, he’s only going to drop a few tantalizing hints as to what we can expect to see as we move beyond the namesake month of August and into a new moon of September. A few Qs and As with Ian August, coming right up.