Theater / Film

Review: ‘A Rock Sails By’ Is A Soul-Searching Delight at Actors’ Playhouse

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
May 21, 2024 at 1:01 PM

Daniel Llaca as Jason Harper, and Laura Turnbull as Dr. Lynn Cummings in the Actors’ Playhouse production of Sean Grennan’s “A Rock Sails By,” through Sunday, June 9 at the Miracle Theatre, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

It was 92 degrees outside of the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables on a recent Sunday afternoon but in the second-floor balcony theater, it was a cool dark night in the New Mexico desert as no-nonsense, non-believer astrophysicist Dr. Lynn Cummings (Laura Turnbull) waited for a “big nothing rock” to pass by an observatory.

She was hellbent on proving to a journalist from an online magazine – a “rag” she called it – that an object from space would pass by and nothing Earth shattering would happen, well, to Earth.

Laura Turnbull as Dr. Lynn Cummings and Mallory Newbrough as her daughter, Olive, in the Actors’ Playhouse production of Sean Grennan’s “A Rock Sails By.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

However, that’s in Act II. Sean Grennan’s “A Rock Sails By” at Actors’ Playhouse through Sunday, June 9, begins a bit more sedate. Cummings is sitting in an Adirondack chair on her porch. She’s sipping a glass of white wine; the bottle is on the table next to her. She listens to a voicemail left by her husband; he’s bemoaning the fact that he can’t find artichokes at the grocery store.

From the start, Turnbull, last seen in Zoetic Stage’s “Cabaret,” is Dr. Lynn Cummings. Still reeling from the death of her husband, it’s just about the only time that Cummings shows emotion. But Turnbull knows how to steady the balancing act so that the two-time Nobel Prize-nominated sardonic scientist doesn’t come off as a one-dimensional naysayer. She’s a woman of fact, making it clear that Hippocrates said it best: “There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.”

She also has a photographic memory, which she announced by its medical term: “I have Hyperthymesia. I can remember the weather, the events for every day I’ve been alive. I can’t forget a thing. . . ” We learn that she is starting to experience signs of cognitive decline.

Laura Turnbull as Dr. Lynn Cummings listens to her husband’s voicemail message in the Actors’ Playhouse production of Sean Grennan’s “A Rock Sails By.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Turnbull knows how to do justice to the brilliance in Grennan’s writing. It’s at times witty, other times deep. He has a knack for writing comedy and is especially smart with comic timing. An assistant sees Cummings adding up numbers on a piece of paper. She’s awestruck. “Wow . . .I’m watching you do math with a pencil . . .This is like Colonial Williamsburg.”

With the right actor in the lead role who carries most of the 108-minute show, a tight ensemble, and a director with an understanding of how to capture the script’s tempo, Actors’ Playhouse’s production positions the profound universal questions that Grennan wants to convey – is there life after death, life beyond Earth, and what’s it all for? Actors’ Playhouse Artistic Director David Arisco allows the play the space it needs so that the evolution of the characters’ revelations about themselves and the world around them gently and steadily unfolds.

The playwright gives his main character the best lines and Cummings is the most developed character leaving others a bit thin. We could learn more about 30-year-old daughter Olive (Mallory Newbrough) – yes, she hasn’t followed in the footsteps of her mother, she’s visiting the house she grew up in, living somewhere else getting a Ph.D., in English literature. She’s come back home because she’s noticed a change in her mother while on the phone with her and concerned about a fender bender where Mom rear-ended another car. But Olive is more or less a sidecar for the main character’s story. To be clear, it’s a small place for improvement and doesn’t upset the balance of the play.

Daniel Llaca as Jason Harper, and Laura Turnbull as Dr. Lynn Cummings in the Actors’ Playhouse production of Sean Grennan’s “A Rock Sails By.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Grennan does have fun with Jason Harper (Daniel Llaca), the next most evolved role in “A Rock Sails By.” He’s caught in the middle of pleasing his editor who is only concerned about getting “clicks” to the online magazine and in needing the job but torn between that and his ethics. Llaca’s spectacularly combustible conversations with Turnbull’s Cummings are volleys that are a joy to watch. The two actors play off of each other with a familiar energy.

The fourth player is Lela Elam who must play multiple roles and, while they are, in many cases, insignificant except for the final surprise role toward the end of the show, the task of wearing these multiple hats is a feat.

She’s Jason Harper’s editor, she’s Cummings’ assistant, Haley, at the university where the astrophysicist is head of the department; and, in another scene, the university’s chancellor. She’s the doctor who arrives in the medical office with a box of tissues to deliver news about Cummings’ declining memory, and then, she’s the Messenger. It would be a spoiler to talk more about the Messenger, but Elam finds a way to make what could easily become a “Lost in Space” caricature into a multi-dimensional being.

Lela Elam in one of the multiple roles she plays with Laura Turnbull in the Actors’ Playhouse production of Sean Grennan’s “A Rock Sails By.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Arisco is a self-described “big fan” of Grennan’s work. This is the sixth time (two musicals “Another Night Before Christmas” and “Married Alive” in 2009, and three plays, “Making God Laugh” in 2013, “The Tin Woman” in 2016, and “Now and Then” in 2022)  Actors’ Playhouse has presented one of the Illinois-native playwright’s works; the third time Turnbull has appeared in one.

The balcony theater at Actors’ Playhouse gives the play the intimacy needed for the naturalism of the piece. In the rear of the stage is a large black fabric backdrop adorned with small, sparkling lights that resemble stars that stay lit for most of the play. There is no set change throughout Act I, which keeps the action flowing. Different areas portray locations: The center playing area is the porch – two chairs and a table, stage right is Cummings’ university office, stage right doubles as Jason’s desk at the magazine and the doctor’s office. A bench near stage right is used for Jason and Dr. Cummings’ meeting place for their interview. There is no mistake what action is happening where.

In Act II, the bench is the sole set piece.

The floor is painted black (all of this presents the space in a quasi-Black Box type setting) with different celestial shapes. Brandon M. Newton did the scenic design, Jodi Dellaventura the set dressing and properties. Eric Nelson designed the lighting and Ellis Tillman the costumes. Reidar Sorensen’s sound – ranging from crickets chirping to atonal violin music – creates atmosphere.

There could very well be a reason that Sean Grennan included doughnuts as the food of choice in his play. Here Laura Turnbull as Dr. Lynn Cummings enjoys one in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “A Rock Sails By.” (Photo courtesy of Alberto Romeu)

Grennan based “A Rock Sails By” on a true space phenomenon where, in 2017 an interstellar object, dubbed “Oumuamua” (the Polynesian word for “scout” or “messenger” – the telescope that discovered it is based in Hawaii) stumped scientists as it whirred by Earth at a high speed. According to NASA, “the mysterious visitor is the first object ever seen in our solar system that is known to have originated elsewhere.”

And don’t think it merely a coincidence that doughnuts play a role in a few scenes where Jason, the journalist, is hoping to win Cummings’ trust through food. Grennan has obviously done more digging. In July of 2021, astrophysicists posited that our Universe may be finite, which means that space is closed in on itself in all three dimensions like a 3D doughnut. For decades, astronomers have argued the nature of the Universe’s overall geometric shapes.

You’ll ponder these, and many other profundities, too, after seeing Grennan’s play.

WHAT: “A Rock Sails By” by Sean Grennan

WHERE: Balcony Theater at Actors’ Playhouse in the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee at 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 22), through Sunday, June 9.

COST:  $55 and $65, weekdays, $65 and $75 weekends. 10 percent off all weekday performances for seniors 65 and older and $15 student rush tickets to any performance 15 minutes prior to curtain with identification.

INFORMATION: 305-444-9293 or actorsplayhouse.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

 

latest posts

Local Playwrights Flip the Script for City Theatre̵...

Written By Michelle F. Solomon,

Expect the unexpected for City Theatre's 2024 edition of "Summer Shorts: Flipping the Script," producers say.

Review: ‘Laughs In Spanish’ At GableStage C...

Written By Michelle F. Solomon,

GableStage gives Miami native Alexis Scheer's 'Laughs in Spanish' plenty of hometown authenticity.

Playwright Alexis Scheer Celebrates the Spanglish Side ...

Written By Miguel Sirgado,

Written by Miami native Alexis Scheer, GableStage presents "Laughs In Spanish," a comedic showdown between a mother and daughter.