Towards the beginning of Steve Yockey’s new play “Pluto,” at Actor’s Express through November 24, Elizabeth (Kathleen Wattis) announces her intention to simply have a normal day. It’s not just her troubled, distant college-aged son Bailey (Wyatt Fenner) who thwarts this uncomplicated wish: it’s the talking dog, the voices on the radio that address her personally and the mysterious visitor who seems determined to invade her house by crawling out from inside the intermittently shaking refrigerator.
“Pluto” takes place in a pleasant suburban household so ordinary you might take a picture of Kat Conley’s great, detailed set and use it to illustrate what an average American kitchen looks like. The big tree bursting through the roof, however — and growing upside down and blocking the hallway with its beautifully flowering branches — might require some explaining.
In “Pluto,” Yockey contrasts the ordinary with the extraordinary. We’re ostensibly witnessing Elizabeth and Bailey playing out an everyday “kitchen sink” drama. They fuss about the flavor of the Pop Tarts, they alternately mention and don’t mention the deceased father, they worry about Bailey’s lack of ambition and success, his poor grades at community college, his inability to get along on his own in the real world.
But the presence of the talking dog (played with beautiful incisiveness by actress Alison Hastings) and other supernatural occurrences indicate that this moment is far from ordinary and that Elizabeth will decidedly not have a normal day. Yockey lets the mystery of these things unfold slowly, and we cumulatively get the sense of the very real, terrible moment being described through these supernatural components.
For the most part, Yockey’s appealing sense of surreal invention and the excellent performances carry the show. Audiences who enjoyed Yockey’s work in Actor’s Express’ earlier productions of “Octopus” and last season’s “Wolves” will be pleased with the new work, which likewise showcases Yockey’s penchant for things supernatural and violent. The audience is never bored in the play’s 80 minutes, which is even higher praise than it sounds like.
But there’s also a conventionality and sketch-like staginess to the ordinary side of “Pluto” and a loud, showy insistence to the magical elements which some may find grating. Mom fusses over groceries, breakfast, and grades; troubled son sits brooding in his pajamas; even the visitor, Death, wears the guise of a slick and solicitous salesman, a conceit that seems well-worn and straight out of stock.
With most of the supernatural elements, everything’s cranked up to eleven, making sure we understand how outrageous and inventive it all is by slapping us in the face with smoke and sound effects, dramatic contrasts, booming voices and gun shots. I thought of Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque,” a very different, much quieter play in which an embodiment of Death visits an ordinary American household. Yockey’s play didn’t come out favorably when I thought of them side by side.
Still, it’s incredibly lovely and heart-breaking that what we arrive at in all of this is actually a moment of clarity and realism, when Elizabeth must see her son as he is, face his destructive actions and also accept his loss. Yockey’s boisterous, subtle-as-a-sandblaster magic realism certainly won’t be for everyone, but ultimately I think most audiences in Atlanta and elsewhere (the play is part of a “rolling world premiere” in which it will play in several cities simultaneously) will respond positively to the swift, efficient, darkly funny narrative, and the honest and heartfelt emotion in the play’s key revelation.