Though both the play’s title and the name of the fledging theatre company (Orbiter 3, here presenting their inaugural production) evoke space exploration, James Ijames’ heartfelt, often accomplished Moon Man Walk is set on planet earth – in fact, mostly in Philadelphia. It’s the story of a young black man, whose existence has perhaps fallen short of the great expectations implied by his given name, Monarch. It’s a quiet life (he’s a librarian), and our sense is that there aren’t many satisfying human connections in it.
Everything changes, though, when Monarch’s mother dies unexpectedly, which brings about a literal trip to his family home in Philly – also, a metaphorical one, in which he revists much of his childhood. Perhaps the play is, after all, about space travel, in the sense that the narrative moves back and forth across time, which Ijames manages with economy and elegance.
Moon Man is also specifically about outer space in the form of a family story – a well-meaning fiction, really – that Monarch’s mother told him to explain his absent father. He was, she explains, part of the first moon mission – and was accidentally left behind when the rest of the astronauts returned to earth.
The story is both sweet and sad, which is the characteristic tone of Ijames’ writing. The story of the stranded moon man is the play’s best and most original idea, and it brings out Ijames’ loveliest work. There are other good moments, too, in the family drama, though it doesn’t feel similarly distinctive. Less persuasive for me was a rather Annie Hall-ish romantic relationship, in which the nervous Monarch is energized by a winsome free spirit named Petrushka. It’s not the fault of the actors (Lindsay Smiling as Monarch, Aimé Donna Kelly, both fine) that this seems too-familiar territory.
Still, much of Moon Man is ambitious and intriguing. The four-actor ensemble (also including Carlo Campbell and Jaylene Clark Owens) is strong, with Owens doing especially fine, grounded work as the mother and several other roles.
Ed Sobel’s production is streamlined and assured, played on a nearly empty stage, yet full of effective stage pictures. This minimalism emphasizes the play’s continuous movement, and also reminds us that we’re in a memory world. But some of the family scenes would benefit from a greater sense of specific context and a less stylized, more realistic approach. Alex Bechtel’s musical score, pleasing on its own, occasionally adds a somewhat formulaic, movie-of-the-week sentimentality.
The real music here is Ijames’ words, which is excellent news for Orbiter 3, whose laudable goal is nurturing Philadelphia playwrights. They’re off to a fine start.
Through July 19, Orbiter 3 at the Prince, 1412 Chestnut St., http://www.orbiter3.org