Early in the first act of Stray Dog Theatre's production of Dark Matters, Michael (David Wassilak) tells his teenage son Jeremy (Tyler Whiteman) the story of what his father-in-law told him when Michael sought permission to marry his daughter. Father and son sit on a sofa, Dad staring out at nothing, son eyeing Dad sidelong as Michael recounts that long-ago conversation. The tale told, Jeremy leaves the room, but not before telling his father, "This is the most we've shared — ever." They are as close as they've ever been in that moment, and neither one can look at the other, touch the other or say what the other person wants to hear.
This is the endless, closed loop of relationships in the Cleary family. Wife and mother Bridget (Sarah Cannon) has been missing for days now — she disappeared off the face of the earth and both Michael and Jeremy are distraught — and it's only in her absence that the two are able to share anything, but even then it's not enough to comfort one another.
Just as suddenly as she vanished, Bridget returns, claiming she willingly went with alien beings to another world and has come back to protect Jeremy from the aliens, who want to use him as part of a plan to populate this new world and begin their "experiment" anew.
To his credit, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa credibly keeps open the possibility that Bridget isn't batshit crazy. And to director Justin Been's credit, he maintains the suspense throughout every twist and dive, keeping us off-balance enough that we're never quite sure which member of the family is the most rational.
Cannon has the wild-eyed glare of a zealot when she speaks of her extraterrestrial friends, and she teeters on the edge of hysteria in her efforts to convince Michael she's telling the truth, but she never quite topples over. Wassilak is compelling as Michael, who begins the play as a preternaturally calm man and grows more frantic and paranoid as the day of the aliens' return draws closer. He doesn't believe Bridget's story, doesn't believe in aliens and isn't even sure that the woman standing in front of him is his wife any more. During the course of one protracted argument about a terrible incident from their shared past (no spoilers, please), it becomes evident that Bridget and Michael aren't arguing about the existence of anything more alien than the other person. Cannon's face is a mask of pain, while Wassilak registers stunned terror. The gulf between them yawns menacingly in that silent moment before snapping shut.
As the other alien in the family, Jeremy has his own secrets with which he must deal. He may have a drug problem, or he may just be sullen and petulant — you know, a teenager. Whiteman does very well in balancing Jeremy's snottier attitude toward his father with his warmer concerns for his mother, and as our occasional narrator he maintains an almost otherworldly demeanor, lending credence to all of his mother's wilder statements about her son's "specialness." He also has the clearest view of both parents, offering the keenest assessment of their problems while unwittingly revealing his own disaffectation with the family unit. "If you pretend something long enough, it's like it never happened," Jeremy sneers about Mom and Dad's coping methods. It's not the make-believe that has damaged everyone; maintaining the pretense that everything is fine is what has done them in. All façades are broken by the end of Dark Matters, for better or for worse.