If you use theater as an escape, attending a play called A Delightful Quarantine right now might sound bonkers. Too close to home? A deft — or daft — marketing ploy? What were the Reston Community Players thinking?!
Turns out this production was in the works long before an unseen threat rocked and locked down our world. COVID sidelined the project, along with much of our humanity. But now, with so much humanity in store in this colorful sci-fi caper, RCP seems not to have chosen its moment; rather, it chose them. Oooo-weeee-oooo.
On its face, Mark Dunn’s A Delightful Quarantine (2007) has nothing to do with the quarantines we’ve come to know and loathe. But seeing a fully masked audience unfazed to be met with players in familiar hazmat suits or in learning that an existential threat is spreading rapidly across pockets of the planet and that the government has issued a mandatory stay-at-home order … feels so real it’s surreal.
What finally punctures the déjà vu bubble is hearing the narrator, Professor Lucy Fuller (a silver-tongued Beth Atkins), plaintively declare that this fictional lockdown lasted three long days. Jaded patrons spontaneously combust in laughter. Hey, two acts of whatever this is beats two endless years of our public-private hell.
As billed, what unfolds in sleepy Susqua Creek Acres, an enclave of Willspier, Pennsylvania, is a pure delight. In the midst of an alien invasion — the kind from outer space — 17 quirky characters are corralled as prisoners across seven households, yet haphazardly arranged by cell. Some are trapped in other people’s homes. Some are trapped in bad marriages. One is a criminal suddenly under house arrest. They represent pairings at every stage of life: two young girls playing dress-up in an attic; two old biddies with youth in their every fiber (and loins); two singles on a first date; two sets of mismatched middle-aged soulmates; two sets of siblings, including twins separated at birth, facing life-or-death dilemmas. While the extraterrestrials wander free outside collecting soil samples, the humans are forced to explore the dirty, inner terrain of their relationships.
It feels a bit anthropological as the Professor lectures the audience about human foibles — a disappointing narrative device. Yet the action onstage is genuinely funny. Not farcical or laugh-a-minute funny, but deep-in-the-bones funny. Director Liz Mykietyn manages to make each wacky storyline work, layering truth with slapstick, weaving disjointed elements of the script into a unified tapestry of discovery and hope. The dialogue never seems forced, the emotions ring true.
A vibrant, tiered set by Anna Mintz (set designer/scenic artist) and Alexa Yarboro Pettengill (set designer and Props) drips with imagination, further defining the spectrum of otherworldliness and inner sanctums. Door frames in a rainbow of colors and styles are raised and lowered from the rafters to partition each space. Amazingly, seven households are realized, compressed like miniature-village collectibles, using a riot of color and textures, items scavenged from flea markets. Combined with coordinating palettes of costume design (Kathy Dunlap) — red for one cheating couple, purple and white for another, buttery yellow for siblings feasting on popcorn in front of the TV. It all explodes like a scene from Willy Wonka. Cartoonish but cozy.
The most far-out look, like something out of Oz, is reserved for Alexa Yarboro Pettengill, who plays a mother coming to terms with life’s most difficult choice. She’s one of the more complex characters, and Yarboro Pettengill successfully injects an easy, hippie vibe that skirts self-doubt and judgment — despite ample drama from a quick-to-judge family.
One of the first actors to earn our full buy-in is Kevin Dykstra. He plays model husband Roy harboring a bombshell secret — although the reveal is unlikely to make today’s savvy audiences flinch. Still, Dykstra is a marksman in his craft, producing shock and chemistry with his capable foil, Charlene Sloan, as neighbor Shirley.
Also standing out from an overall top-notch cast, on opening night, were Allie Blanchet and Jane Keifer, as besties Diandra and Jennifer, respectively. (Birdie Thomas and Cara Ethington rotate into the roles at other performances.) These youngsters were poised and precocious in their comic timing — truly pros in the making.
But the comedic brilliance of veterans Kim Thornley and Liz Weber as bosom buddies Violet and Mavis cannot be overshadowed or overstated. They morph into vigilantes after capturing a burglar (the unassuming but ingenious Anthony Pohl). Even through hilarious geriatric gymnastics, they expose the dark contradiction that people can turn violent in a misguided attempt to curb violence.
Shelby Kaplan also gets her hooks in by humanizing and deflecting stereotypes of a “crazy cat lady.” (Is she really one, though, or is she just crazy?) Kaplan plays to the cheaper seats — expansive tones and gestures — then artfully tones it down with nuance as lovelorn, loony Judeen. Judeen gets thrown into purgatory with Chester (Michael Wong), whom she’s just met for a date and who inspires in her regret, initially, for not swiping left. Together Kaplan and Wong rise above the script’s mediocrity, blending tenderness and whimsy. Wong is also a masterful comedian, whose character moves from practical — at first using his lockdown for honey-do tasks (we’ve all been there) — to possessed, his eyes pried open to love’s intangibles.
One theme that may resonate with theatergoers, whether they be quarantine soldiers or deniers, is not of “seeing is believing” but of “not seeing is believing.” For instance, a question gnaws surrounding Judeen’s 14 cats, whether any of us can believe our eyes or truly see into another’s heart. The tug of war between faith and skepticism is echoed in the powerful pairing of Sue Stadler (Eileen Marshall), who faces a critical health crisis, and her brother, Dean Stadler (Danny Seal), an atheist called upon to suspend his own disbelief and pray for her. When Stadler finally delivers, it’s a universal moment of deliverance.
Another euphoric moment comes with the entr’acte, in which the plague on all the houses pauses. Stir-crazy inhabitants let loose, as if dancing for their lives, to a recording of “Jumping at the Woodside” by the Count Basie Orchestra. Their vignettes burst forth like viral TikTok videos flung into the universe by so many COVID captives, aching for a lifeline.
As we round the corner into Year 3 of living dangerously, shake the recurring nightmares by sampling a slumber party outside of your own pandemic pod. In these seven “fun houses,” at the intersection of art and serendipity, the halls have mirrors — but you’ll leave thinking life doesn’t look half bad.
Running Time: About two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.
A Delightful Quarantine plays through March 12, 2022, at Reston Community Center’s CenterStage, 2310 Colts Neck Road in Reston, VA. Curtain time is 8 pm except for the March 6 matinee, with a 2 pm curtain. For tickets ($25–$30), contact the box office at (703) 476-4500 x3 or purchase online. CenterStage is accessible and offers listening devices for the hearing impaired.
The program for A Delightful Quarantine is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks covering mouth and nose are to be worn by all persons while inside Reston Community Center regardless of vaccination status, per Fairfax County Government. RCP’s COVID-19 complete policies and protocols are here.