Donna Orbits the Moon
nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
September 8, 2011
Out of the dark, in a crackling, crashing thunderstorm, a brightly smiling pixie of a woman—Donna—appears. Her demure manner and good Midwestern upbringing are belied by her first sentence. She apparently slapped a woman at the Rainbow Foods, slapped this nice little old lady who had been reaching for the same grocery item as she. And now she has to shop much further away, where she doesn’t even like the produce.
We are thus brought, intrigued, into the off-kilter world of Donna.
Donna is a mom. She drives a minivan, goes to church, does macramé, and loves the Mall of America. She’s a bake sale celebrity, noted for her gooseberry blondies (a confection that—tellingly—sounds rather alarming).
In a long, friendly conversation with us, narrated from her comfy living room recliner or up among the photos in her attic, or floating in a starry night sky of what she calls motor oil, Donna tells us recent episodes of her life, drawing in and assuming all the characters as she goes: her handsome husband Gil, who’s been working a lot of overtime recently; her slightly self-righteous daughter Terry; the obnoxious Meryl who covets her blondie recipe; her raucous friend Cheryl. She rhapsodizes over the Rainforest Café at the mall: “I imagine that’s what the real Amazon is like.” She longs for a good pair of sneakers. She bakes. She goes to rummage sales. She vacuums.
With affection, humor, and an indomitable cheer, Donna blithely talks about trips to the library, the school, the church. All perfectly normal destinations, all told in a perfectly reasonable manner.
But something is very definitely not right with Donna and her world. And we watch, rapt, as the truth cathartically emerges.
Writer Ian August, actor Andrea Gallo, and director Marc Geller have created a wonderful character. Donna is the lady next door, your friend’s mom, a familiar presence you see all the time in lots of places—but when you come down to it, a total stranger whose inner life is a mystery to you.
And to her, it turns out.
Donna’s orbit soars in the capable hands of the New Jersey Rep designers. From Jack Kennedy’s opening storm sounds undercut with shards of broken glass, to Daniel Dungan’s twinkling inky sky, to Jessica Parks’s lovingly detailed, character-revealing knick knacks that line the outer edges of the set, to Patricia E. Doherty’s spot-on perfect costume (sneaks, comfy pants, and a June Cleaver strand of pearls), every element reinforces the character and explains her world.
There is something sweet and vulnerable yet cosmic about Donna and her plight that reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plucky Little Prince. And I think the production team intended this resemblance. The small protagonist, face upturned in the dark to a black sky studded with wondrous dots of light, adrift and floating—a beautiful image. It matters not at all that Donna is a woman of middle age, her spaceship an old recliner, and her universe lined with clutter. August tells us, and Gallo and Geller show us, that there is profundity in muddle and Middle America and midlife. This is a play that discovers and celebrates the cracks in the façade, the unknowable in the ordinary, the humanity in the humble.