Watching this world premiere is like hearing only half of what sounds like a fascinating conversation. The product of nearly eight years’ collaborative writing, play feels like its three authors David Eldridge, Simon Stephens, and Robert Holman became so immersed in their characters, situation and backstory that they lost perspective on how much they needed to tell their audience. In addition, the scenario they have created is so epic in its ambition and scope that the play feels constrained by its conventional running time.
“Stars” is made up of a series of charged, often sparely written scenes, performed without a set against Jon Bauser’s simple, sweeping white cyclorama. The ambitious attempt is to place an emotionally detailed account of a family in crisis — middle-aged William (Nigel Cooke) is dying of colon cancer and tries to bring his four brothers together on the family farm — within a larger, apocalyptic narrative frame: the world is ending in two weeks because of a phenomena called cosmic strings. Whatever global hysteria news of the impending Armageddon may have caused has apparently passed, and now humankind (as represented in microcosm by this family) is struggling to make amends as it waits for the final curtain.
This is, to put it mildly, a complex situation, but the two narrative realities never work in harmony. We don’t learn enough about the characters to be able to judge their present behavior against past norms (we don’t find out what it is about this family that makes it uniquely unhappy), and relationships are frustratingly difficult to discern. The five brothers are decades apart in age, thus making it initially hard to understand 14-year-old Philip (the brilliant Harry McEntire, as impressive here as in his two previous Lyric appearances in “Spring Awakening” and “Punk Rock”) as the brother and not the son of William or eldest brother Jake (Alan Williams). We find out late in the second act that the mother, Margaret (Ann Mitchell), had Philip when she was 58, but the larger significance of this extraordinary birth remains unclear. Confusions are exacerbated by flaws in casting: Mitchell appears to be the same age as Williams (60ish) when she needs to read nearly two decades older.
At times there is an elemental quality to the writing, as well as Sean Holmes’ staging, that is deeply moving: at considerable length, Margaret washes William’s naked, hobbled body as Philip looks on; Margaret and Philip fold sheets and talk about the family’s past. These scenes sit somewhat uncomfortably with the grubbier realities of family and married life as played out in scenes between unhappy brother James (Pearce Quigley) and his chemist wife, Harriet (Tanya Moodie), and between working-class Jake, his estranged, strung-out daughter, Nicola (the wonderfully affecting Kirsty Bushell), and her adolescent son, Roy (Rupert Simonian).
Another layer is introduced midway through the first act when Philip has an encounter with his dead grandmother who appears on stage matter-of-factly as a beautiful young woman (Lisa Diveney); Philip appears to have summoned her from the past, thanks to a conversation about a watch that has been in the family for generations. This is a striking moment, but the strand of story that emerges here (which tries to tie in World War II and the Holocaust) doesn’t have enough room to breathe.
This use of props as symbols of history and memory, and the layering of time periods, is reminiscent of the work of Quebec theatermaker Robert Lepage, and of the Australian epic “Cloudstreet” that toured in the late 1990s (a production also evoked here by the dozens of lightbulbs that descend over the stage as the play ends). What distinguishes such international work is its length and scope (Lepage’s plays can sometimes run up to seven hours, and “Cloudstreet” took up a whole day). “A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky” feels like it wanted to be an English epic of the same scale, but was perhaps curtailed by the realities of funding and programming. As it is, production feels increasingly ponderous and self-important as the evening wears on, though some images and ideas shine bright in memory afterward.