The darkness is pierced by a single spotlight, centered on Seth (Billy Kelly). He speaks of the past, what happened one night in the caves that ramble on forever under the rural North Carolina county he calls home and how easy it is to become lost in them, especially if you've been drinking. Seth speaks slowly, with a soporific rhythm, and he stares into the darkness with wide eyes as he explains the terrible blackness of the caves, how you can't see anything, the panic that swells when you realize you're turned around and heading deeper into the earth. And as Seth talks, that spotlight grows almost imperceptibly weaker, as if the darkness he's summoned is nibbling away at the edges of the light. He's almost completely swallowed by the encroaching blackness before you realize Seth's not telling you what it's like to be lost forever in the caves he's remembering. And then the light is utterly extinguished and the theater feels about ten degrees colder.
It's a simple yet powerful piece of stagecraft, just a trick of the light and an actor telling a ghost story. And throughout Saint Louis University Theatre's production of Language of Angels, this elegant formula is utilized again and again to good sometimes great effect.
As Seth attempts to recount, a close circle of high school friends (himself included) went into the caves to party, as they'd often done. Seth's girl, Celie (Lindsey Trout), never returned from the darkness. Her mysterious fate haunts the group for the rest of their days; each tries to explain what they believe happened to her, even as they smash headlong into their own horrible fates.
Naomi Iizuka's nonlinear story requires that the cast maintain a consistent atmosphere even as the action shuttles back and forth through time and from one point of view to another. Director Tom Martin mostly succeeds in getting his young charges to achieve this goal. There's some distracting accent drift and a few clunky exchanges that briefly disrupt the delicate tone of the story, but these stumbles are quickly forgotten in the face of engaging performances.
Kelly's role is key in establishing the tenor of the play. His dreamlike cadence gives way to a rapturous shout when he finds what he's looking for in the depths of the cave in a shower of golden sparks another excellent use of effects to enhance a powerful scene. Language of Angels employs quite a few effects an onstage camera, video projections, banks of lights but they never overwhelm the actors or the story.
Jegar Fickel as Billy, on the other hand, threatens to consume the proceedings in a blaze of heat and profanity. As the "wild one" in the circle, Billy should be a powder keg, and Fickel delivers. In the space of perhaps ten minutes, he swears and swaggers himself into a sweating, sparking raw nerve; what happened down in the caves is years ago, yet Billy can't escape it. When he finally drops to the floor, leg twitching and gun in hand, his terrible blank eyes see only the darkness.
Cale Haupert and Healy Rodman, as JB and Danielle, dominate the third part of the play. By this time what happened to Celie is clear to the audience but JB and Danielle, the last surviving members of that night, are the only ones left onstage who can remember. Haupert plays JB stolidly. His memories are literally hard to swallow, and his voice drifts off into the shadows. Rodman, a little wooden and "actory" earlier in the evening, is sure and grounded here, but with a flinty edge. "Why would I tell you something I already know?" she asks JB, and herself.
The audience, of course, knows the answer: We tell people what they already know because some people believe only what they see, and some people refuse to believe what they've seen is true. Both are right, and wrong. And in the language of angels, the truth is that nothing is as dark or terrifying as the warrens of the soul.
And then, with another clever trick of light, the temperature in the theater drops again and the final ghost is laid to rest.