There are still easier places to find than the new Carolina Actors Studio Theatre near the corner of 28th and North Davidson Streets. But when Phase 2 of CAST's relocation kicks in, there will be signage beyond the sidewalk leading you to the proper mall entrance. I knew the way well enough because I'd taken two prior tours of the grounds — once when Charlotte Rep moved their offices, rehearsal spaces, and design shops into the complex, and once again when NC Dance Theatre chose the NoDa address for their offices and barres.
Eventually there will be three performing spaces at the new CAST, including two 125-seaters. One of them will be an arena stage that will carry on the company's revolving stage tradition. Right now, the thrust stage is up and running with the maiden offering at the 2424 N. Davidson site, Thomas Strelich's Neon Psalms.
We encounter the Mears Family as they emerge from a beaten-up house trailer in the Mojave Desert, where the California haze isn't smog but instead a lingering distillation of atomic bomb tests. True to CAST's trademark experiential theater, attendants in clean suits will be stationed in the lobby to test you for radiation before you are allowed to be seated. Tickets, picking up another thread of the oddball drama, are tinkly little turtles.
The longstanding hurts, failures and antagonisms of the Mearses probably wouldn't smack so much of Tennessee Williams if Strelich didn't stir the pot so often with reptilian flavorings — the endangered turtles that Luton tries to preserve as pets and the extinct dinosaurs he sees as progenitors of our fuel supply. When he isn't caring for the turtles, or searching for the ones his bible-toting wife Patina has set free, Luton busies himself watching reruns of Bonanza. As exemplars of the human race, the Mearses seem fairly well primed for extinction themselves.
Enter the couple's divorced daughter, Barbara, who returns home broke and broken after her two children choose her ex — and the attractions of Disneyland — over her. What ensues is a real-life rerun. Actually, two story lines are reprised simultaneously: the whole dysfunctional family ecology of Barbara's childhood that launched her into the outer world with her dyspeptic personality and, curiouser still, the petty tug-of-war we've already seen between Luton and Patina over those big, vulnerable turtles.
Audry Alford and Michael R. Simmons co-direct a beautifully detailed production, showing off the new stage to fine advantage. The desert set, designed by Simmons, has a wee mobile home that can bear the weight of at least two of the actors at a time, and a real TV set can be seen within. Synthetic Joshua trees surround the corrugated hovel, and live tortoises are scuffling about inside a kiddie pool filled with beach sand through much of the evening, adding abrasive notes to Jon-Claude Caton's sound design.
As Propane Ray the delivery man, Sean Watson serves ably as a California fertility god in Act 2, giving Barbara a surge of ambition and, more surprisingly, setting Patina's libido on fire. Saddled with Patina's one-note doomsaying and sermonizing until she corners Ray, Meg Woods pounces eagerly on the scene that allows her toxic hypocrisy to reach full bloom. The true jolt of the night comes from Russell Rowe as Luton in his final confrontation with Patina — delivered with sudden, pointed power even though Rowe could be asked to show us a more laid-back Luton earlier on.
Neither Luton, a retired borax miner, nor Patina is going anywhere, so Barbara is our de facto protagonist. Kathleen Taylor shows us a Barbara with a potential to spark, and along the way, her reactions to mom and dad prefigure her ultimate awakening to the toxicity of their relationship and their parenting. But beyond recognizing the pet parallel between herself and the captive turtles, Barbara doesn't have a great epiphany on the meaning of her journey — or ours — and Taylor can't make Strelich's heroine any more than what she is.