At the very least “Fits and Starts,” Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s new play about the Rapture coming to a small Southern town, is never boring. Every scene of this overtly symbolic head-scratcher features language and imagery so divorced from conventional storytelling that they could only be designed to push us past reality and into a non-literal rumination on spirituality. Even as it spirals out of control, auds may feel compelled to watch this production, if only in an effort to figure out what its latest metaphor could mean.
The show begins with promise, if not perfection. We hear a storm descend on the rickety front porch of a generic Southern family — the imaginary kind with bare feet, mangy overalls, and smudged faces — and after a thunder-filled blackout, the lights rise on a Hasidic Jewish man (Thomas Hoyt Godfrey) sitting in the rocker where Pappaw (Vince Phillip) had been just a moment before. This is a satisfying kind of bizarre: an image that doesn’t make sense but crackles with dramatic possibility.
And as the first act continues, Cheatwood seems to be heading for something. Pappaw’s disappearance is joined by other family mishaps, like the sudden pregnancy of young Nadine (Jenni Tooley) and the mysterious blindness of her mother-in-law (Lenni Rodgers). By nodding to a collection of Biblical images and depositing a Hasid in the mix, Cheatwood suggests she has a large statement to deliver.
Granted, some of the symbols feel self-consciously “meaningful,” like when no one notices that Nadine’s stepson Pug (Ken Matthews) is covering both the set and the cast members’ legs with charcoal sketches of demons. But the emerging writer’s ambitions are so large that it’s easy to forgive these flourishes.
Then again, who can focus on a script’s missteps when the strident ensemble is so distracting? Director Tania Inessa Kirkman inexplicably lets her cast eschew emotional range and vocal modulation, so that thesps make the same acting choices for every situation.
At best, this is uninteresting, as when Tooley turns Nadine into a continually cowering doormat. At worst, though, the repetition is unbearable. Take Patrick Dall’Occhio as Vince, Nadine’s lover and Pug’s father. Vince may be a volatile brute, but surely Dall’Occhio could have communicated this without screaming all the time. Instead, he just yells at top volume throughout the show, flattening his character into caricature.
The great irony of this production is that in the first act, the perfs seem like diversions from an interesting play, while in the second act the formula inverts. Carrie Heitman arrives as Europa, Vince’s first wife, and does compelling work as she softly manipulates her former family into letting her take care of Nadine’s soon-to-be-born child. Yet just when a thesp shows nuance, the script’s ideas collapse.
It’s difficult to say what happens in the second act, since logic and plot are discarded for a parade of obtuse gestures.
Among the highlights: Nadine gives birth to a sock puppet, Pug performs a Native American rain dance, and Europa builds a long pink tunnel near the clothesline that could either be a Jewish sukkah (it’s bursting with branches after all) or some kind of adult-size birth canal.
But really, that rosy monstrosity is neither. By the time it’s built, the imagery in “Fits and Starts” has become so vague that the symbols could mean anything, which leaves them meaning nothing at all.