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Theater review: 'Saturn Returns' at South Coast Repertory

November 1, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Saturn returns 1
In “Saturn Returns,” which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, playwright Noah Haidle takes his inspiration from the heavens, structuring his play in 30-year intervals to reflect the time it takes Saturn to return to its position at the moment of a person’s birth. Astrologists believe that these periods mark epochal shifts, and Gustin, a radiologist portrayed by three different actors, confirms this theory during his long and lonely life.

Nick Ullett plays Gustin at 88, Conor O’Farrell plays him at 58 and Graham Michael Hamilton plays him at 28. Kristen Bush takes on the roles of the three female characters he conflates into an elusive dream of happiness: Loretta, his young wife destined to die tragically young; Zephyr, his hippie daughter, who struggles to wrest free from her father’s suffocating embrace only to suffer a fate every bit as cruel as her mother's; and Suzanne, his flinty nurse, whose friendship he covets more than her care.  

For a guy pushing 90, Gustin is in remarkably good shape. Death may be discernible, but it’s not yet at the front door. Consequently, his story — a retrospective stroll, in which the past resurfaces in the present — has no more urgency than an afternoon nap’s worth of scattered reminiscences

Saturns returns2 By turns crusty and cute, this retired doctor sits alone replaying his challenging relationships with his wife and daughter as other men his age might play Sudoku. “They were here,” he tells Suzanne. “And then they weren’t. And I have to stay here. Because this is where they were.”

These ghosts — as beloved as they are begrudged — appear in familiar guises in the old living room (credibly assembled by scenic designer Ralph Funicello) in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Gustin’s heart surged with love and cracked in despair. His younger self frets over his childless wife’s melancholy and amorphous days. Years later, long after Loretta’s death, which occurred while she was giving birth to Zephyr, a middle-aged Gustin vainly attempts to be a good sport about the fix-ups his now nearly 30-year-old daughter arranges for him, not realizing that she’s trying to unload him on another woman.

“Saturn Returns” is an elegantly arranged character study, but it is short on event (momentous action, pivoting on fateful choices, is relegated to the past). At times the play seems like background notes for a not-yet-fleshed-out drama. Haidle’s backward glancing approach results in a demonstration of pronounced traits and entrenched interpersonal dynamics rather than in the discovery of something unforeseen or little understood. The main pleasure of such a work is having your obvious hunches confirmed.

The production, directed by SCR producing artistic director David Emmes, is competent, clean and unsubtle. Everything is laid out for our immediate detection. The rhythm of the staging is relaxed (maybe too relaxed), but commendably, the pathos goes unstrained.

The Gustins are all believable, with each actor illuminating different facets of the protagonist’s changing outlook. Hamilton reveals a youthful romantic idealism already flecked with a few dark clouds, O’Farrell betrays middle-aged disappointment in curmudgeonly sternness, and Ullett (best of all) lays bare a melancholy humor that recognizes the truth of things, including the mournful tardiness of its insight.

Bush has a harder time makes sense of the contrived situations of her underwritten characters. Haidle tries to suggest depths elliptically, but Loretta’s moodiness isn’t adequately set up, Zephyr can seem like a flower child cliché (especially costumed as she is by Nephelie Andonyadis) and Suzanne’s whiplash shifts in her dealings with Gustin don't always seem credible.

For “Saturn Returns” to become more than just a ring around a regretful husband and father, it needs an actress who can lend the female roles more gritty texture than Haidle supplies. But the sketchiness of the characterizations would be hard to conceal no matter how brilliant the casting.

What’s most memorable here — and encouraging about Haidle’s future — is the fluid architecture that allows us to see the different phases of Gustin at once. When the two older men helplessly observe their young self in the throes of love at the end, the play lands on an image that, more than anything that has preceded it, encapsulates the transitory bliss that can haunt a lifetime.

-- Charles McNulty

"Saturn Returns, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 22. $28 to $65. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Photo: Top: Kristen Bush and Nick Ullett. Bottom: Bush and Graham Michael Hamilton  Credit: Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times