It is impossible to conceive of the emotions and torments that would plague a parent whose child had been kidnapped. It is equally difficult to imagine why a playwright would short-circuit his own intriguing story. Still, those are the challenges facing playwright Rajiv Joseph in Mr. Wolf, now at the Cleveland Play House.
After an opening scene that pulses with intrigue laced with heady discussions about infinity and the cosmos, the play slowly devolves into a domestic drama with snatches of a police investigation. It is indeed rare to see a play begins so promisingly and then meander away from glorious possibilities to settle for a handful of mundane clichés.
There's no denying that this production is superbly handsome to look at, thanks to scenic designer Timothy R. Mackabee, starting with a book-stuffed library in someone's home. It is there that we meet 15-year-old Theresa and an older gentleman, Mr. Wolf, who comes back from the store with an urgent agenda. According to him, "the world is coming" and about to enter their lives, and Wolf has brought Theresa a warm coat, sneakers and some chocolate to prepare for the journey.
These logistical preparations take place next to a blackboard where Theresa has been drawing maps of the stars and using colored chalk to illustrate the most distant known galaxy. Is she a savant, as she postulates the possibilities that infinity provides? And what is their relationship? This may be one of the most exquisitely mystifying yet entirely involving starts to a play in recent memory. And that mystery is further enhanced when Mr. Wolf claims he's about to commit suicide, followed by an unexpected set change between scenes one and two.
It is at that point that we are thrust back in time into a fairly conventional yet quietly unsettling story. Michael, Theresa's father, is working out his issues a couple years after Theresa's disappearance when she was three years old. At this point he has established rules for dealing with a vanished child, and he just finished sharing them with others in a support group setting when Julie shows up. She too has had her child abducted, and she says, "I don't want to live."
Michael shares with her some of his rules, one of which is: "Don't talk to them if they're not there." As ensuing flashback and flash-forward scenes indicate, Michael and Julie get married, a union that is tested when Theresa is eventually found, and Hana, Theresa's biological mother and Michael's ex-wife, shows up to welcome her home.
Trouble is, home for Theresa is the library in the house where Mr. Wolf, a professor of astronomy at a community college, has kept her safe and sound. You see, the old guy thinks Theresa is a prophet from God who can plumb the intricacies of infinity and save everyone. Okay, he's malevolently bonkers, a fact that is proven when some of his other activities are revealed. But little Theresa gradually figured out that she could stay safe if she played Wolf's game, becoming expert at running the stargazing scam that he set in motion.
In the key role of Theresa, Juliet Brett is small, fragile and seems slightly under-developed even for a 15-year-old. And that would be expected, having been held in the confines of Mr. Wolf's house and imagination. In this difficult role, Brett is hauntingly arresting. John de Lancie conjures up such a fascinating character as Mr. Wolf in scene one, we feel quite bereft as we find he won't return, except for a rather perfunctory flashback towards the end. He also plays a couple smaller roles, when Theresa sees Mr. Wolf in the shape of a doctor and a police detective, that aren't nearly as interesting.
Michael and Julie are played by Todd Cerveris and Rebecca Brooksher, with Jessica Dickey turning in an edgy, blunt-speaking turn as Hana. They do a fine job in roles that feel, weirdly, almost superfluous. The writer is clearly more interested in Theresa and Mr. Wolf, yet he spends most of the play with the other three, without ever going deep enough into their specific stories. This Law & Order: Astrological Victims Unit whimpers to a close as the adults gather around Theresa in the now empty library where she was kept, and they reach a Kumbaya moment that feels depressingly pre-fabricated.
If only we could go back in time to the end of the first scene. That's when Mr. Wolf gives Theresa a piece of advice for the moment when the police finally break down the door and find her. He tells her to focus on inquiry, keep asking questions, keep them off balance. Had the immensely talented Joseph been more willing to follow that splendid advice in his writing, Mr. Wolf would be vibrant instead familiar, open to possibilities instead of ultimately standing pat.
Through April 24 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.