CHT’s ‘Small Planet’
laughs at 1950s America
By PETER HECK
CHESTERTOWN — You could reasonably describe Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet,” currently playing at Church Hill Theatre, as a combination of “Mork and Mindy” and “Dr. Strangelove” — except for the fact it was written before either of those cultural landmarks.
Vidal’s play, written at the peak of the Cold War in 1957, is built on a familiar premise: a space alien comes to our world, and his outsider viewpoint reveals many of the absurdities we earthlings take for granted. Middlebrow culture, militarism, the rise of mass media, materialism — all are plum targets for Vidal’s satiric barbs.
“Visit” was originally written as a TV script for “Goodyear Television Theater” in 1955. Vidal expanded it to a full-length play, which ran on Broadway for 388 performances. Cyril Richard, who directed and played the alien, Kreton, was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance.
There’s also a 1960 film version, which is primarily a vehicle for Jerry Lewis with little of the satiric edge of the original play. Vidal reportedly gave up writing for the theater and turned his hand to historical novels after seeing what Hollywood did to his script.
The play is set at the country home of the Spelding family near Manassas, Va. As the play opens, Roger Spelding, a TV news pundit, is talking to his old college friend Gen. Tom Powers about the current flying saucer scare. Spelding is about to air a show that disproves the existence of UFOs. Then Powers tells him the Army has been tracking one in the neighborhood, which is why he’s visiting. Naturally, Spelding wants to break the story, but Powers says he can’t because it’s top secret.
And then the saucer lands in Spelding’s back yard. Out comes Kreton, an alien military history fan who’s come to view the Civil War battle of Bull Run. When he learns he has arrived more than 100 years too late, he decides to stay and see what the 20th century has to offer.
Naturally, Gen. Powers is at a loss as to how to deal with the alien — whose race has advanced technology. Since they’ve learned how to live forever, the aliens have no need for reproduction. And, as it turns out, Kreton has strange powers, including mind reading.
Meanwhile, Spelding’s wife Reba is blissfully unaware of everything — and their daughter Ellen is considering dropping out of college to marry a neighboring farmer, Conrad Mayberry, of whom both parents heartily disapprove.
But as Kreton decides to take a more active role in the 20th century world, things take a sinister turn. He may have missed Bull Run, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be another, even bigger war. And there’s a general right on the spot to move things along.
Howard Mesick, one of the Shore’s most reliable comic actors, is well cast as Kreton, the alien. The role includes carrying on a serious conversation with a cat (on loan from the Animal Welfare League of Queen Anne’s County — and available for adoption after the play closes) and swooping around the stage in Confederate uniform. Mesick pulls it all off with a straight face and excellent timing — it’s great fun to watch.
John Norton, who worked as a producer at two Baltimore TV stations, is convincingly pompous as Roger Spelding, the TV commentator. He effectively portrays the character’s on-camera arrogance as well as his worry that he might get scooped.
Shannon Whitaker also provides a good performance as the Speldings’ daughter, Ellen — probably the most likable character in the cast. Torn between traditional values and idealism, Ellen is in many ways the deepest character in the play, and Whitaker brings this out believably. A nice, nuanced performance.
Debbie Ebersole turns in one of her best performances as Reba Spelding, with a clueless sweetness that mocks the Eisenhower era’s image of a perfect wife. She has some of the better laugh lines of the play, and she delivers them with just the right tone.
Justin Butler, making his debut at CHT, takes the role of Conrad, Ellen’s boyfriend. An anti-war, anti-materialist idealist, he challenges the assumptions of the older characters almost as much as the alien — yet his focus is really on his love for Ellen. Butler makes it all convincing; we’ll hope to see more of him onstage in the future.
Pat Martin, who has numerous credits in community theater in the Washington area, takes the role of Gen. Powers. He does a good job conveying the general’s growing insecurity as he finds himself dealing with the alien — and with the realization of what a real war might mean for him.
John Haas, a CHT board member, plays the general’s aide, whom Kreton decides is a fit subject for demonstrations of his powers. Haas plays the unwilling comic butt with a nice balance of resentment and dismay.
Maya McGrory, a CHT veteran despite her young age, does a nice job in a small part as Delton 4, another alien. And Bob McGrory (Maya’s father) and Megan Boyle do a good job in brief parts as Spelding’s TV cameraman and sound tech.
The set, designed by Sam Martin, makes good use of the CHT stage, even extending one wing to provide an “outdoor” area. And Les Lentz’s sound design, with lots of Buddy Holly tunes, effectively evokes the era.
The play is firmly anchored in the 1950s, and at times it may seem both dated and nostalgic. But as director Liz Clarke notes in the program book, the play “has as much to say about daily life in America today as it did 60 years ago.” A lot of our phobias and preoccupations have changed very little — as anyone who follows the news will quickly recognize. It’s a timely reminder that “the good old days” weren’t necessarily all that good.
In fact, Vidal was in some ways ahead of his time; Conrad, a pacifist who dropped out of college to become a farmer, is certainly at odds with our image of the conformist 1950s. And Roger Spelding could be the prototype of today’s opinionated and interrupting cable newsmen — especially when he interviews the general on TV. Even if you don’t remember the 1950s, you’re likely to find this one entertaining — and thought-provoking.