Even astronauts have to start somewhere.
Colonel Chris Hadfield is a decorated space traveler. He’s seen the entire Earth from above, and gone where few have gone before. Before he started his astonishing career, however, he was once just a kid getting over his fear of the unknown. After a five-year collaborative process, Young People’s Theatre presents Jim Millan and Ian MacIntyre’s version of Hadfield’s children’s book The Darkest Dark, written with Kate Fillion, in a charming theatrical adaptation that shoots for the stars. Hopefully, kids will think it’s out of this world.
Set in 1969 at the cusp of NASA’s most famous achievement, the show orbits around nine-year-old Chris (Ziska Louis), who’s spending the summer at the family cottage with his parents, teenage sister Cindy (Evelyn Wiebe), and best friends Jane (Hannah Forest Briand) and Herbie (Xavier Lopez). Chris seems to be prime astronaut material. He can rattle off space facts at gravity-defying velocity, has an insatiable appetite for all things astronomical, and constantly imagines his destiny as Captain Chris, explorer of faraway worlds and exploder of asteroids.
However, his imagination is also his greatest challenge. The “shadow aliens” Chris envisions after the lights go out at night make it impossible for him to sleep alone, which is wrecking the entire family’s vacation. His family encourages Chris to get over his fears before they’re all too tired to stay up to watch Apollo 11 touch down, and Chris worries what might happen if his trusty Mission Control buddies find out that their captain is afraid of the dark.
Director Millan gives the 65-minute show the snappy pacing of a sitcom, each scene landing on a clear beat that propels it into the next. The quick transitions are aided by an effective set by Anna Treusch, flats resembling the outside of a three-dimensional log cabin that easily rotate to form Chris’ bedroom. Screens surround the set on all sides, spreading out in a rose-petal (or spiral galaxy) pattern. They host projections of the night sky, appealingly retro footage from NASA and CBC News, and even Hadfield himself. The music (Deanna H. Choi), starting with a nod to the Star Trek theme, also places us squarely in the era.
Louis does a credible job of portraying the young Chris, piping up with a high, reedy voice that trembles with conviction. Treusch’s costumes, including spaceship jammies and an array of matching, colour-coded shorts for the main trio, convincingly age down the child characters, who show a tight, natural bond and demonstrate the sudden shifts from giddy bravado into paralyzing terror that only kids can manage. As the slightly older teen, Wiebe’s strength is physical comedy, making the most of dorky Cindy’s nascent crush on hippie canoe instructor Keith (Shaquille Pottinger).
What makes the play so appealing is its gentle and kind spirit, which is pervasive without detracting from story or conflict. For example, even though Cindy gets extremely frustrated with Chris, she has no actual desire to embarrass him in front of his friends; secrets are revealed by accident rather than cruelty. Parents will enjoy the loving and encouraging but realistically exasperated representations of Chris’ parents (Aurora Browne and Craig Lauzon), who are doing their best but also want to enjoy some kind of relaxation. A scene where Chris teases his father about his age is extremely cute.
The humour is also gentle; broad enough to entertain the kids, but not so broad that adults will cringe (there’s only one fart joke). The only bits that seem slightly out of place involve a CBC newscaster who interjects between scenes; his role is entertaining but tonally odd, reading as an attempt at institutional satire on the edge of a small, earnest story.
The adaptation is visually compelling in how it differentiates between the stylized world of Chris’ imagination and his reality. As Captain Chris, Louis wears a shiny helmet with an internal glow that’s all mid-century futurism; we see candy-coloured spandex, masked aliens, and gleaming robots. Effects here are simple but powerful: the appearance of a figure from Chris’ nightmares caused at least one young audience member to gasp with fright. In the daylight, the actors switch to items that look homemade out of tinfoil, paper plates and cereal boxes. The recognizable ‘60s cereal mascots and logos underneath the paint are a nice touch.
Chris’ imagination also comes to life via stage magic, judiciously and delightfully employed. Characters disappear and reappear in faraway locations faster than you think might be possible, even roaming into the audience. Thinking of his dreams, Chris controls projections of the sky by painting with light.
As he tries to conquer his fear, the determined Chris repeats, over and over again, “work the problem.” It’s only when he realizes that he needs to engage both his logical and emotional sides, like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk between Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, that he can push past the issue. Each of the kids has to face something frightening, and the results refreshingly play out in many ways, showing a deep understanding that not everything is for everyone. Confronting your fear may cause you to see the beauty of the unknown: or, it might make you realize that something you thought you wanted really isn’t for you — and that’s okay.
But maybe, just maybe…one day you’ll be an astronaut.
The Darkest Dark runs at YPT February 20 through April 2, 2023.