How fitting to hold a post-show Q&A for The Starry Messenger during Loneliness Awareness Week. Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully delicate play considers the torment of, as New York Times‘ critic Ben Brantley puts it:
“fallible, contradictory, lonely souls who can never quite articulate what’s missing in their lives but always feel the void”
In the play, set in the 1990s, Mark Williams (played by Matthew Broderick) is lost. An astronomer at New York City’s Planetarium, he feels a closer connection to the infinite, starry sky than to his job or even to his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern). Mark doesn’t believe in fate or divine intervention, but the universe has other ideas.
After a chance meeting with Angela (Rosalind Eleazar), a young single mother and trainee nurse, Mark feels starry-eyed. But when a catastrophic event rips through their lives, Mark is forced to re-evaluate his life, his faith and his place in the universe itself.
The play offers a richly woven tapestry of characters struggling through the challenges of daily existence; in addition to the above, there’s Norman (Jim Norton), a patient at the hospital where Angela’s training, and his frazzled daughter Doris (Sinead Matthews), as well as Mark’s more popular colleague Arnold (Joplin Sibtain) and two of Mark’s evening-class students, the constantly confused Mrs Pysner (Jenny Galloway) and the hyper-critical Ian (Sid Sagar).
Broderick has been friends with playwright Kenneth Lonergan since childhood and, in high school, attended classes with him at the now-demolished Hayden Planetarium, where the play is set. He first performed The Starry Messenger in the world premiere in 2009 at New York’s Acorn Theater, in a production directed by Lonergan and co-starring Lonergan’s wife J Smith-Cameron as Broderick’s onstage wife.
After last night’s performance, I was joined by Matthew Broderick, Elizabeth McGovern, Rosalind Eleazar, Jim Norton, Sinead Matthews and Sid Sagar to discuss the history of the piece, the cosmos, loneliness, religion, astronomy and the beauty of the 1899 WGR Sprague-designed Wyndham’s Theatre.
This UK premiere production of The Starry Messenger is delicately directed by Sam Yates (lots of praise for him during the discussion too) and features a truly stunning set with revolve and planetarium-like night-sky-strewn dome by Chiara Stevenson, lit by Neil Austin. Absolutely breathtaking design work.
We ended the Q&A with a nod to the play’s celebration of lifelong learning. Which subjects would this cast sign up to learn at evening class? Brexit (Sid and Jim), astronomy (Sinead), pottery (Ros), guitar (Elizabeth) and cooking (Matthew). What about you?
Favourite quote from the play
From Mark’s final lesson with his students:
“I’m not a religious man, but as I grow older, I am more and more aware of a thin, inadequate feeling that grows and grows as you cling to your total rejection of mysticism and the fantastic, when all life is more fantastic than imagination allows. It’s such thin gruel. But don’t our testable beliefs have to mean something? Don’t they have to stand up on their own merits against the demands of our wishes, and the deficits in our imagination? I think they do. But it leaves us so horribly and infinitely cold and alone.”
Interval tweet at @StarryPlay. Gentle, thoughtful, delicate, mesmerising piece.
— Terri Paddock (@TerriPaddock) June 18, 2019
Event photography by Peter Jones.