As the lone establishment in a desolate stretch of Arizona desert, the Starlight All Night Diner is a classic, cozy 24-hour oasis whose staff serves coffee and pie to whoever, whenever. When the play opens, third-shifters Jessa (a waitress played by Leah Strasser) and Sam (a janitor played by Lormarev Jones) are passing the long night in their usual way: casually chatting as they brew coffee and sneak slivers of pie. Each keep strategic secrets: Jessa’s feet are killing her while Sam isn’t relishing another night’s sleep in her truck. But both appreciate the camaraderie they have found in each other and the refuge they have found in the diner.
Sam steadfastly polishes the already gleaming countertop as Jessa frets aloud about her deadbeat boyfriend, her new baby and her future when regulars Dr. Franklin Moxie (played by Michael Burnham) and his sidekick/assistant Danni (played by Maggie Cramer) burst into the diner demanding to hear the nightly news. A glorious comet, says the radio, is lighting up the peaceful night sky, making it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a midnight picnic with family.
But the eccentric Dr. Moxie and frazzled Danni are keen to the truth. The harmless comet is actually a killer asteroid rocketing toward Earth on a collision course sure to be utterly catastrophic.
Luckily, Danni and the doctor have a plan. Instead of waiting around for deep impact, the two hotwire the diner and transform it into a DIY time machine that carries the foursome backward in time. They find themselves deep in the past and far from impending doom.
Despite the sky-high stakes, the play is unable to generate sufficient dramatic tension to fully energize the production and the action. Though it has highly imaginative and very fun moments, the story falls unfortunately flat. Infused with themes of love, family, friendship, community and home, the central message comes through loud and clear: These human essentials are chosen, not predetermined, and they present themselves when you least expect them.
The script’s beauty and good intentions are undermined, not by the zany premise, but by the haphazard sequence of events that unfold in the play’s second half. The characters are ill prepared for their journey, having given precious little thought to what life might be like without electricity or modern medicine. The audience should relish the quietly unfolding relationships and journeys of self-discovery catalyzed by a great adventure, but much of the wonder is drowned out by incredulous shock: How could anyone think such a journey would be easy?
Strasser’s performance as the beat-down but bright-eyed Jessa is warm and laced with sass, which pairs nicely with Jones’ steady presence and loving calm. Each character is hemmed in by what they feel they can’t say, with each actor leaning into their character’s vulnerabilities. Gradually, that process allows their uncertainties to guide them toward one another. Burnham’s Dr. Moxie is the quintessential brilliant — but completely mad — scientist, while Cramer’s Danni is equally brilliant but unsure of herself. Together, the pair conjures happy memories of Back to the Future’s Doc Brown and Marty McFly.
Noelle Johnston’s costuming has a retro vibe that adds a layer of texture to the show’s appearance. Strasser’s pink waitress uniform and saddle shoes are reminiscent of a 1950s soda shop; and Cramer’s ball cap and fanny pack feel like a subtle homage to the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Set against Andrew Hungerford’s shadowy but sparkling set, the show’s color palette becomes soft and luminous, evoking starry skies and moonlight. Director Alice Flanders unites the production elements while staying true to the play’s central ideas of family and companionship. For Jessa, Sam, Danni and Dr. Moxie, the diner is home and they are family. No matter where or when the diner exists, it remains the show’s centerpiece.
Though at times dismaying, Know Theatre’s production of Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Diner succeeds in being quirky and dreamy. A trippy journey through space and time raises the questions: What is scarier — being lost in the past? Or confronting the future?
Know Theatre’s Always Plenty of Light at the Starlight All Night Diner runs through March 16. Tickets and more info: knowtheatre.com.