Stray Cat Theatre's Pluto Is a Splendid, Surreal Production in Tempe

Elizabeth, a youngish suburban mother, is determined to have a normal day. But there's a tree growing, upside down, in her kitchen. Her three-headed talking dog is acting churlishly. The announcer on her radio, which keeps turning itself on, is speaking directly to her. And someone keeps trying to climb out from inside her refrigerator.

Elizabeth is a character in a Steve Yockey play. A normal day doesn't seem likely. If Pluto, now on stage at Stray Cat Theatre, comes across as one long fever dream, that's deliberate. The point of Yockey's surrealist story is that life isn't always neat and tidy; in fact, it can be downright scary and quite awful. Director Ron May and his impressive company of players find each and every comic moment in Elizabeth's dreadful day, and make the most of what little subtlety there is in his dramatic message, besides. This is a splendid production of a noteworthy play.

See also: Gina Gionfriddo on Having It All, Pulitzer Prizes, and Rapture, Blister, Burn

Its story unfolds slowly, as Elizabeth attempts to converse with Bailey, her college-aged son, who's trying to study. Both are deliberately not talking about something terrible that may have already happened. Instead, they banter about the mysterious death of Bailey's father, argue about the value of blueberry Pop-Tarts, and bicker about their snarky pet (played with gentle mirth by Yolanda London), all in the most suburban kitchen you'll see on stage all season. (I'll eat my hat if Eric Beeck's flawless set design doesn't win kudos in this year's theater awards season.)

May has created an appropriately traditional staging for a world-gone-topsy-turvy script, and wisely refrains from restraining his players, who climb over the top of each scene without once over-acting -- particularly Gabrielle Van Buren, whose full-throttle performance as a caterwauling mystery woman is both terrifying and delightful. Cole Brackney's sometimes frantic, ultimately heartbreaking performance as Elizabeth's oddball son makes the final moments of Yockey's peculiar story all the more touching. And Neda Tavassoli offers admirable restraint as a put-upon suburban mom whose life just doesn't make much sense, today.

Michael Peck, who joins the fray late in Yockey's story, plays Death with a barely perceptible sneer, the subtle equivalent to a wink at the audience that says, "I'm having a blast!" So are we, watching both Peck's controlled performance and this dark, fascinating story.

Pluto continues through Saturday, March 7, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th St. in Tempe. 
Call 480-227-1766 or visit

Follow Jackalope Ranch on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela