Theater Review: Blue Sky is Politically Admirable. But What About Artistry? | Arts

Theater Review: Blue Sky is Politically Admirable. But What About Artistry?

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Blue Sky
★★★
CAM Raleigh, Raleigh
Through Feb. 14


When a playwright, a director, and actors are unable to create fully believable characters and situations, it’s sometimes hard to say where the difficulty lies. Often enough, gifted work in one or two categories can overcome the problems in a third; in a recent example, inspired performances and direction in Temple Theatre’s The Addams Family compensated for an iffy book.

But it’s not so hard to say regarding Blue Sky, in a co-production from Burning Coal Theatre Company and CAM Raleigh. The discouraging words “stick figures” appeared in my notes at the end of the third scene. By then, we’d met three of the four central characters in Clare Bayley’s drama: actor Shannon Malone’s driven Jane, a British reporter whose newspaper refuses to support her investigative journalism into the war on terror in 2003; Ray (John Allore), an amateur plane spotter and a formerly close high school friend; and Ana, Ray’s college-age daughter (Mya Ison).

We’d also been struck by the conspicuous conveniences Bayley installed throughout her 2012 script. Because Ray is a plane spotter, he can help Jane navigate online databases to track one of the “torture taxis” the CIA used to outsource brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists during the Bush era. Because they’re unbelievably lucky, Ray can even photograph the plane when, out of more than 600 airstrips in England, it happens to land in their home town.

And there’s more: Ray’s late wife was active in the resistance in El Salvador in the seventies, so the desaparecidos and the CIA’s extra-legal adventures in Central America under Reagan are also at the ready. And since Ana’s studying journalism, Jane can critique and basically dismiss citizen- and web-based journalism in their brief, one-sided debates.

Yes: terribly convenient, all in all.

Under guest director Gus Heagerty, Malone, a seasoned actor new to local stages, finds some journalistic fire in Jane’s heart of ice, and Allore’s bewildered Ray wrestles, to an extent, with his grief, fears, and politics. Ison makes the most of her underwritten role as Ana, and Rimsha Afzal is young but convincing as Mina, the wife of a disappeared Pakistani.

The white walls and concrete floor of CAM Raleigh’s main gallery are an impressive canvas for designer Elizabeth Newton's minimal set, circumscribed by chain-link fencing. We heard and felt the low-frequency roar of aircraft in Patrick Calhoun’s dramatic sound design, but Bayley’s characters never become as palpable. They have little to no believable life outside their playwright’s agenda. When Heagerty, for the most part, doesn’t solve this dilemma, his actors can't either. As a result, we're left to admire the politics more than the artistry of Blue Sky.

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