What If?'s latest is a winning play in a losing game 

String theory

click to enlarge What If? Productions' latest performance features everyone's favorite — an unreliable narrator locked up in a mental facility.

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What If? Productions' latest performance features everyone's favorite — an unreliable narrator locked up in a mental facility.

When it comes to gloomy forecasts on the fate of mankind, it's usually advisable to consider the source. For instance, if the buzz-killing sad sack bemoaning doomsday is making those grim predictions from the inside of a mental health facility, you may want to hold off on squandering your life's savings in advance of the Rapture. But then again, the fellow may just have a point.

It is this unreliable narrator that creates the deliberately faulty footing of A String Between Man & The World. A deft, dense one-hander by Philadelphia-based playwright Paige Zubel, the play landed local acclaim this year as Best New Work at the 2017 WIP Playwrights Competition.

The annual program, which is now in its sixth year, is the brainchild of What If? Productions, with its top pick representing the leading theatrical gem of hundreds of entries submitted from origins spanning the Eastern parts of the United States. As the winning work, Zubel's play receives its world production premiere in Charleston.

Directed by Grace Benigni and running at the College of Charleston Chapel Theatre, A String Between Man & The World examines the fine line (or string as the case may be) between reality and delusion by trotting out some less-than-settling suggestions about who is really pulling the strings here on Earth. However, fear not: The heady notions, sci-fi slant, and theological bell-tolling all go down with a drizzle of whimsy that lightens the existential load.

Whether the patient in question, Miles Alloway, is hopelessly out of his mind or is actually the victim of a botched, time-traveling NASA foray, he is notably unhinged. The play's setup is that he has been given special dispensation by hospital administrators to argue for the latter to a team of experts. In a designated, no frills room within the facility, Miles does so by addressing the audience, thus making us the anonymous arbiters of his mental state as we evaluate the truth or lunacy of his account.

Miles does this by clumsily making use of outdated projectors, white boards, and various random props that lay about the room — a stuffed kitty, a piece of red ribbon — the bits of matter that come together to represent his life. These are referenced regularly enough (perhaps a bit too regularly) to take on talismanic import in Miles' anguished mind, in particular that red ribbon.

For starters, he insists that his date of birth is not 1978, as his hospital files indicate, but is actually 1921. What's more, he claims that the discrepancy is due to nothing less than a covert government mission, and we are left to noodle out whether that assertion renders events deeply sinister or altogether silly.

The playwright does a decent job of weighting the plausible and the bizarre by placing the story in the hands of the curiously credible patient. Even while he is spouting seeming utter nonsense about divine entities that look like his town dentist, his basic emotional through line is sound enough to enable us to stay with him – and hear him out.

While you may not buy his conspiracy tales, you may concede that the source of his grief remains painfully, poignantly clear. When it comes to his agenda, he is just an average family guy in a tough spot, consigned to forever rue the bad luck that separated him from his wife and children.

As Miles, James Ketelaar delivers a rigorous, relatable performance, feverishly pivoting between otherworldly flights of fancy and intimate family moments, while also maneuvering through offbeat humor, heightened agitation, and deep grief.

In the last legs of the 85-plus-minute show, he perhaps amps up to shrill a bit prematurely, giving himself (and the audience) nowhere to go to close the deal. Instead, we are left to rest uneasily on that pitch for an extended spell. But Ketelaar succeeds in the main, keeping us largely with the story as it lurches absurd.

That may be the result of the bump in the play, which is all set up, but with no cathartic place to wind up. There's plenty along the way, mind you. We have one man's journey — whether via spacecraft and time travel or via the random circumstances confronting anyone hoping to hold others close to his heart. We have our eternally confounding dance with the rational and the mystical. And we have the nagging hunch that we may just be sinners at the hands of an angry God.

And maybe it should suffice for one man, even one of questionable sanity, to beg all of mankind to do something that would resonate with many as a valid request. And that something, of course, is to change.


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