Sundown, Yellow Moon by Rachel Bonds is a family story about twin sisters from the big city who visit their newly divorced father in his barely furnished cabin in the woods during a Tennessee summer. Musical interludes featuring music and lyrics by the Bengsons can’t save this story from a lackluster script and unfortunate staging at Raven Theatre. Even the always imaginative director Cody Estle couldn’t make me care very much about his characters.
What’s wrong? The dad, Tom (Will Casey) is going through anger management counseling and may not be able to get his teaching job back. Something about screaming vitriol at the headmaster and then (accidentally) backhanding the headmaster’s wife. His daughter Joey (Diana Coates) is about to leave for a two-year Fulbright stint in Germany. She’s become a vegan, which seems to unduly infuriate her father. Ray short for Rayleen (Liz Chidester) is a singer-songwriter who fears she’s going to be dumped by her girlfriend, who also is her employer at a nonprofit organization.
Carver (Jordan Dell Harris) is Tom’s counselor and a former musician, who occasionally listens to the local radio station and hears songs by his former band, Moonlight Miles. He’s a moderately interesting character with a minor scandal in his background. Ray and Joey remember him from school, when he was five or six years ahead of them. There’s also Ted (Josh Odor), a poet with writer’s block, who is taking a nighttime walk in the woods when he meets Joey after her night swim. They get acquainted and meet again later. Unfortunately, the scenic design (by Jeffrey D. Kmiec) made it impossible for me to see anything that was happening in the woods. About a third of the play takes place there, including a couple of tense and unsettling scenes between Joey and Ted, who I saw for the first time when he came out for the curtain call.
That brings me to my point about the unfortunate staging. Raven’s East Theatre has plenty of performance space. On the audience’s left is Tom’s cottage, where we see a living room (with a futon and little else), the kitchen and front porch. Spread off to audience right is the woods with a forest of beams symbolizing trees. The problem is that if you are sitting in the left half of the seating area, you will not be able to see anything going on in the woods. Yes, I’m short but plenty of other people are short too. Raising the woods area onto a higher platform might help. This is a serious problem that Raven should try to adjust now, at the beginning of the run of Sundown, Yellow Moon.
The soft folk-rock music by the Bengsons is melodic with engaging lyrics, especially in the scene on the porch when neighbors Jean (Jeanne T. Arrigo) and Bobby (Rob Frankel) play fiddle and guitar. Ray, who is thinking of giving up her music to do something else, finally plays a new song as the play ends, a sign of hope for the future.
Estle’s cast is generally competent with warm and realistic performances by Chidester and Coates as Ray and Joey. and by Harris as Carver. Music direction is by Andra Velis Simon with sound design by Eric Backus. Lighting is by Becca Jeffords, a skilled lighting designer whose work doesn’t light up the woods.
Married duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson are composers and performers who have appeared at such venues as Joe’s Pub in New York, MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., and in theaters all over the country. They also have scored for film and TV.
Sundown, Yellow Moon continues through November 17 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets are $46 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 95 minutes with no intermission.