If Saturn Returns is what it appears to be, then it’s an amusing but inconsequential wish-fulfillment play. If it isn’t, then it’s much more
Imagine this lowly scribe’s surprise last Sunday evening when, 20 minutes after leaving South Coast Repertory’s Saturn Returns, he spotted the actress who played three roles fueling up her ride at a gas station on Bristol Street.
So, I asked her a question about Noah Haidle’s play. Actually, I asked her the question.
“Do you think the caretaker you played was a real person, or a figment of the old guy’s imagination?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s real,” she replied. “Absolutely.”
But after paying for my gas and walking back to my car, I passed her and, unsolicited, she said, “You know, that’s an excellent question, though.”
If there is more going on beneath the surface of Haidle’s play, then Saturn Returns is yet another brilliant script from one of America’s most gifted young playwrights (the dude’s 30). But if it is just what it is, than it’s really nothing more than a wish-fulfillment play, a male fantasy in which an older man seduces a younger woman—even though that old man is 88 and there is nothing sexual about the seduction.
At first glance, Saturn Returns does seem like nothing more than a feel-good tale. The 88-year-old Gustin (a grouchy but likable Nick Ullett) is unbearably lonely. He seldom leaves his home and obsessively clings to the memories of his long-gone wife and daughter.
Gustin spends his days trying to find someone, anyone, to visit him. He calls computer-repair technicians, even though he doesn’t own a computer. He clogs up his toilet with a tennis ball in order to get a plumber to visit him.
And, on this day, he’s called an assisted-care service. Suzanne (the aforementioned Kristen Bush) is the caregiver. And she just happens to look identical to Gustin’s daughter and she agrees to spend the day with Gustin, even though he’s perfectly healthy and quite capable of taking care of himself—and she returns to his home later that night and moves in with him.
It’s an entirely implausible situation that even the lamest Hollywood treatment couldn’t get away with: Less than 24 hours after meeting a desperately lonely old man, a smart, attractive young woman (whom we know very little about) moves into his home. He’s found the pot of gold under the rainbow.
But what gives rise to the question of whether Suzanne is real or imaginary is that the play isn’t just about an octogenarian. In recurring flashbacks, we see 58-year-old Gustin (Conor O’Farrell), a widower whose life revolves around his daughter, Zephyr (also played by Bush), and 28-year-old Gustin (Graham Michael Hamilton), whose life centers on his spunky, if somewhat damaged, wife, Loretta (Bush’s third incarnation, each of them a fully rendered and distinct character).
With so many Gustins onstage, so many memories circulating around the creaky house, and so much incalculable sorrow surrounding the two most important people in his life, the arrival of Suzanne suggests that after being dealt two unbelievably shitty hands in life, Gustin’s finally caught a break.
Or has he?
If the playwright’s name weren’t Noah Haidle, it’d be easy to buy this implausible tale—and easy to write off Saturn Returns as an amusingly inventive and emotionally affecting play that is, ultimately, quite inconsequential.
But Haidle is one of America’s most frenetically talented young playwrights, as evidenced by his two previous productions at SCR: Mr. Marmalade and Princess Marjorie. Both plays trafficked heavily in imagination and the blurry line it shares with reality. Both wound up feeling far darker and more perverse than their apparently bucolic fairytale beginnings would suggest.
The weird thing in Saturn Returns is that the fairy tale never seems to fracture. Gustin gets exactly what he’s yearned for for so long. His wife and daughter have finally returned in the person of Suzanne. All is smiles and roses, and this likeable curmudgeon will never have to endure a lonely day again.
But things end on a decidedly offbeat note. For the first time, all three Gustins are onstage at the same time, and the two events that will lead this man to such depths of sorrow are played out. The older Gustin can only watch in silence as the pivotal moments in his life unfold and lines that we’ve heard in the present are replayed in the past. He knows every scene by heart but is absolutely incapable of doing anything but watch.
Suddenly, the genie in 88-year-old’s Gustin’s bottle seems uncorked. He’s not happy, content or filled with a reason to care about life anymore. He’s just an old man desperately trying to drown out the cacophony of voices clashing in his head.
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So, again, the question: Is Suzanne just another voice in his head, or a real person?
That answer wouldn’t make the play any less enjoyable in the moment. Even if Suzanne were real, this is a funny play possessed by Haidle’s trademark concertina-wire-sharp wit. But if it is a far sadder, darker play, it’s also a far more resonant one.
Based on Haidle’s track record, I’m willing to wager the latter is the case.
Saturn Returns at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 22. $28-$65.