“Sojourn” Review- A Mission Into Endless Space

(top-bottom) Kaitlyn (Cynthia Branch Lagodzinski) communicates from Earth to astronaut Nick (Drew Benajmin Jones) aboard the vessel, Sojourn
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Periodically, the media features ghoulish stories of bereavement, telling the tales of pitiful lost souls who have kept their dead mates in their living spaces, interacting with them as if still alive. Such is the premise of Evan Kokkila-Schumacher’s drama Sojourn, set in space ship and mission base, following the journey of two astronauts, a female and a male, charting their  fraught relationship with each other, the astronauts interactions with their controllers in Houston, and the three mission base staff interactions with each other, in a tri-level  dramatic structure. The audience awaits learning whether a mission into endless space with no return envisioned, will manage a next generation to carry on.

Nick (Drew Benjamin Jones, foreground) must decide what to do on Sojourn, with conflicting advice and information from everyone else (background, left to right: Laura Domingo, Richard Holman, Cynthia Branch Lagodzinski, and Melissa Jones)

A depressed male is uncertain whether the button should be pushed to start the parturition and birth process for the spaceships potential human cargo. A life affirming female attempts to keep his spirits up but then we learn that the dialogue has been a mirage with one person speaking to himself while invoking the other, who appears as real, achieving an imagined interaction. Such is the nature of scripted theatre that holds until a Living Theatre brings characters alive and sets them in motion to function untethered, without a scripted security blanket But the trajectory of Sojourn was foreordained by a mission whose only tether to external reality are asynchronous video messages, that will eventually devolve into audio transmissions  transmitted with increasing time delays as the sojourn  mission delves deeper into space and all contact is lost.

(l-r) Drew Benjamin Jones and Laura Domingo are NASA astronauts Nick and Deanna, on a one-way mission into the furthest reaches of space

But we don’t have to go into space to lose, or regain, contact with each other is Sojourn’s ultimately hopeful message. The fraught natures of everyday dyadic interaction in a confined space/relationships echo in this interstellar drama, focusing on a “basket case” who somehow wiggled by NASA’s psychological screening. Benjamin Jones infuses Nick with passionate intensity, while Laura Domingo brings Deanna to life with actorly ease.  

(l-r) Garett (Richard Holman) argues with Kaitlyn (Cynthia Branch Lagodzinski) about the importance of the space mission

Traditional gender role reversal occurs, with female Deanna, the tower of strength in apposition to Nick’s dependency that increases with her death. Richard Holman is superb as a diffident mission true believer, the engineer personified, while Cynthia Lagodzinski Kaitlin Connor-Xu is his antithesis. Representing higher bureaucratic authority, responsible for generating public support for an apparently forgotten mission that has lost the public’s claim to attention, she is the pragmatist in the house. Melissa Jones displays strong human concern for the mission’s participants, challenging bureaucratic authority on their behalf, serving as link and mediator between an operational world and its controllers and vice versa. 

(l-r) Melissa Jones and Richard Holman are NASA staff Marta and Garett, working to support space mission Sojourn from Earth

Ostensibly treating the social exigencies of space travel, Sojourn is more about a male life course crisis, willingness to accept responsibilities of parenthood, in this case represented by the decision to turn on an incubator, or not. Soujourn also exemplifies the principal/agent dilemma.  A paradoxical issue is the turning over of the spacecraft from human to automatic control, a decision left with the spacecraft’s operators who must consent to the transition. As the craft moves further away from earth with a longer and longer time gap in message exchange, it becomes clearer that this mission is to nowhere in particular, with no return to earth possible.   Carrying potential human cargo incubating on Board, Sojourn’s mission is to provide the human race with an insurance policy by moving humanity outside the solar system, beyond the consequences of nuclear or other irretrievable disaster.

(top-bottom) Marta (Melissa Jones) tries, from Earth, to assist Nick (Drew Benjamin Jones) on the Sojourn space mission

The Theatre of ideas is alive at Pear. Whether it be the social science issue of the effect of group size on human interaction and social stability or the reversal of time predicted under certain conditions by Einstein, a state virtually impossible to achieve at present but perhaps in the future as science catches up to science fiction.  A putative investment of 300 billion in a mission to insure humanity’s survival reflects a pessimistic assessment of our ability to keep earth inhabitable. This is a mission play, one that will make you think uncomfortable thoughts, comfortably, for example that we all share varying proportions of “male” and “female” identities in our makeup. Pear Theater is to be commended for performing future classic as well as contemporary classic playwrights! Cross over EL Camino to LaVenida Avenue and catch the next set of weekend performances of Silicon Valley’s premier off Camino Real Theatre.  

All photos by Michael Craig

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