Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.
- The Darkest Dark
- At Ada Slaight Stage at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto
- Written by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre, based on the book by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion
- Directed by Jim Millan
- Starring Ziska Louis, Aurora Browne, Craig Lauzon, Hannah Forest Briand, Xavier Lopez, Shaquille Pottinger and Evelyn Wiebe
At one point everyone’s been told not to be afraid of the dark. But for the imaginative nine-year-old at the centre of the new play The Darkest Dark, that’s not so easy.
It’s the summer of 1969 and the precocious, space-obsessed Chris (Ziska Louis), his parents (Aurora Browne and Craig Lauzon) and older sister Cindy (Evelyn Wiebe) are vacationing at a cottage on the remote Stag Island in Ontario. Like the rest of the world, Chris is counting down the days to watching the historic Apollo 11 moon landing on TV.
Eventually Chris would like to blast off, too. In his fantasy life he’s suited up and zooming around in space, transmitting important information to his imaginary colleagues at NASA while pulverizing asteroids with his laser gun. At night, though, when the owls begin hooting and the bedroom curtains start rustling, he’s less confident.
Before he can boldly go where no one’s gone before – yes, there’s at least one Star Trek reference in the show – he must first overcome his fear of the dark.
Adapted by Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre from the children’s book by astronaut Chris Hadfield (with Kate Fillion) – who actually did spend a life-changing summer on Stag Island during the moon landing – The Darkest Dark explores what it’s like to live with, and try to conquer, a fear.
Chris is fortunate enough to have supportive, if sleep-deprived parents, who take turns staying with him in his bedroom as he falls asleep. His mom even installs a bell for him to ring if he wants help – a solution that quickly backfires. Chris’s sister isn’t so supportive, however, and teases him.
Chris keeps his nighttime terrors a secret from his cheerful, equally nerdy island friends Herbie (Xavier Lopez) and Jane (Hannah Forest Briand). Through other activities, such as learning to canoe and mounting a space-themed play to commemorate the moon landing, it soon becomes clear that everyone fears something. Even the seemingly confident Cindy gets nervous talking with the kids’ ultracool, hippie-ish canoe instructor, Keith (Shaquille Pottinger).
The script sensitively chronicles Chris’s nighttime ordeal, with Anna Treusch’s set effectively capturing both the homey comfort of a child’s bedroom and the possible dangers lurking in the shadows. During some fantasy sequences, projections of stars and whirling planets fill up bits of screens bordering the stage, creating an immersive effect.
Millan tries a little too hard to add period texture to the show. One transition features the silhouettes of Swinging Sixties youths grooving to counterculture sounds (that said, Deanna H. Choi’s sound design and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting add lots of fun here). Another shows us characters attempting to hula hoop. But these feel like padding to the main story.
The character of Keith also feels particularly underdeveloped and cliché, although Millan and MacIntyre use his Zen-like wisdom to provide the show with one of its main themes.
More effective are brief scenes involving a stiff, stern-sounding news anchor who keeps us abreast of the moon mission. Lauzon delivers these reports with a perfect mock presentation he obviously perfected during years at Air Farce.
Under Millan’s direction, the cast soars. Lauzon and Browne (Baroness von Sketch Show), besides looking fabulous in Treusch’s late-sixties fashions, are warm and sympathetic parents game for anything, clearly understanding that their gifted son’s anxiety warrants a thoughtful approach. Wiebe, Briand and Lopez make believable young people, their tics and outbursts adding to their charm.
It’s up to Louis, however, to command this theatrical ship, and the young actor’s intelligence and exuberance energize the production. Not only does he have to navigate some difficult dramatic and comic moments, but he’s also tasked with performing a few magic tricks.
Granted, these effects, staged with the help of consultant David Ben, aren’t the most elaborate – they didn’t elicit much response from my jaded, restless weekend matinee audience. But the magic does add an element of wonder to an inspiring and entertaining all-ages show.
The Darkest Dark runs to April 2, 2023.