The Vanishing 

Language of Angels holds out a glimmer of hope

Playwright Naomi Iizuka draws us into The Language of Angels with a tale akin to an eerie campfire story. In Synchronicity Performance Group's production, brash young Seth (Joe Sykes) introduces the "cave country" of remote North Carolina with an urban legend-style monologue about passing out drunk in a local cavern, then waking up in perfect darkness.

As the light on Seth grows tighter and dimmer, he describes the mounting panic of walking in the wrong direction, of hearing "the rustling of a thousand wings" and seeing an ethereal light that leads to a dead-end. It's like the crux of an Edgar Allen Poe short story, and all claustrophobics in the theater will suddenly remember urgent appointments somewhere else.

Angels' chilling introduction sets the tone for the rest of the play. Iizuka pulls back the curtain on remote Appalachian locations, inexplicable disappearances and sudden bursts of violence. But rather than recount a conventional ghost story or perform a post-mortem on a tragic event, she explores how the incident shapes the trajectory of the survivors' lives. In Angels, small-town life feels no less constricting than Seth's cavern, and supernatural entities don't light the way to easy exits.

For the high schoolers of Lenoir County, the caves primarily serve as a refuge for drinking beer and making out. Video-projected graffiti proclaims who loves whom "forever and ever." The show perfectly taps the vibe of a rural teen bacchanal when the low lighting reveals kegs and cases of beer and we hear the cast laughingly sing bits of "Me and Bobby McGee."

On one such festive night, Seth recalls, his girlfriend, Celie (Rachel Mewbron), disappeared in the caves and never returned, an episode that's haunted her classmates for years.

In overlapping monologues by Seth, local sheriff J.B. (Jeff Feldman), and Celie's now-grown friend Kendra (Kristi Casey), Celie emerges as a self-destructive party girl with a fondness for angels. Kendra describes the pictures of muscular, masculine angels in Celie's room, images that combine sex and death. At one point, J.B. holds his flashlight under his chin like a campy Halloween storyteller and mockingly intones, "Some folk say she cursed us all."

As the play flashes back and forth in time, we learn that Celie's friends suffered unlucky fates -- hunting accidents, drug addiction. Survivor's guilt compounds the difficulty of their small-town lives, and characters either literally flee to a better existence or escape into self-defeating temptations like drugs and petty crime. Just as the action of the doomed friends suggests the inescapable bleakness of a dead-end town, so does Rochelle Barker's molten, rust-colored set accentuate the already cavelike aspect of the 7 Stages Back Stage space.

Synchronicity's production draws the tension tight with shadowy lighting and sinister sound effects, but has more trouble peering into the souls of its working-class characters. Directed by Rachel May, Angels seldom feels like an authentic slice of rural life. Iizuka's dialogue sounds too formal, while the cast rarely speaks with lived-in accents. J.C. Long, as a live-wire redneck outlaw, brings a refreshingly pungent, rough-hewn presence to the play, but his performance strikes repetitive notes of angry indignation.

Feldman commands the show most effectively and exudes not just the confidence of his badge, but the smugness of secret knowledge. He also suffers sudden attacks -- accompanied by startling, pinpoint bursts of light -- that could be small strokes or signs of divine retribution.

Yet the play's hints of the afterlife provide cold comfort. At times Celie speaks from a distant future -- and possibly from beyond the grave -- to fill in blanks in the story. Mewbron's eyes have a natural intensity and the sound design frequently gives her voice a celestial echo. It's as if the barrier between the living and the dead, between angels and mortals, became permeable with her disappearance.

Rather than provide reassuring answers to worldly endeavors, the play's spiritual aspects only emphasize that human beings are on their own. At one point, Celie's jaded pal Danielle (charismatic Rachel Roberts) chats up Michael (Theroun Patterson), a mysterious stranger. Danielle suspects that Michael may be an otherworldly messenger, but his presence only causes her to relive her grief, not alleviate it.

The play's extended coda takes up with the final two survivors in middle age, and though one circles around a dark confession, the other, a former junkie, seems at peace. The contrast between them suggests the only way to deal with a tragedy like Celie's disappearance is to face it, rather than seek false hope in angelic authorities or temporary relief in earthly pleasures.

If angels have a language, the play implies, it's incomprehensible to mortal ears. But The Language of Angels holds out signs of hope: The fateful cavern may be a bottomless pit, or it may be a wishing well.


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