Noah Haidle’s wistful and melancholy “Saturn Returns” brings an astrological aspect into play. Haidle, a Princeton graduate and a former teacher of playwriting, includes a note in the program that explains that the astrological term “Saturn returns” refers to the 30-year orbit of the large planet famed for its rings. It is believed that the return of Saturn generally effects a major change in one’s life when “it returns to the same position it occupied at the time of a person’s birth.”
The returns were obviously not too kind to the sad and lonely Gustin (John McMartin), the 88-year-old retired radiologist who lives alone in his neglected old mansion in Grand Rapids, Michigan. White-haired, bespectacled, and wearing a robe, he wanders around while visited with disquieting regularity by his long-deceased wife, Loretta, and daughter, Zephyr, and by what he calls “echoes” of himself at 58 and 28. Charles Dickens would love this.
Despite some light touches that suggest Gustin’s bent for comical perversity, sadness overwhelms the atmosphere. The play offers us glimpses of the life-altering moments that have shifted and shaped Gustin’s life. Haigle’s dramatic device by which these moments are brought into sharp relief is accomplished with a sensitive and also crafty ingenuity. Nicholas Martin’s direction is quietly arresting and can take credit for the fluidly devised, gimmick-free transitions. These are enhanced by some lovely original music by Mark Bennett.
At the start of the play Gustin is cheery and a bit spunky with Suzanne (Rosie Benton), the attractive and conciliatory visiting home care professional, who not only takes his vitals but also is persuaded to stay and fix his breakfast. Gustin is soon energized by Suzanne, who triggers Gustin’s memory of his 30-year-old daughter, Zephyr (also played by Benton), who drowned while on a holiday in Mexico.
A number of scenes explore their relationship, particularly his dependence on her after the death of Loretta in childbirth. In one of the play’s most persuasive and amusing scenes, Zephyr tries to get her father to be enthusiastic about dating. Benton also plays Loretta, the young, emotionally needy young wife (“Kiss me like we’re happy”). In the almost poetically embroidered scenes between Gustin and Loretta, we are aware of them speaking to each other in the third person. In that Benton portrays all the women, it becomes the play’s most cleverly devised aspect.
The play takes place within designer Ralph Funicello’s handsomely furnished living room setting. Robert Eli portrays Gustin as the 28-year-old medical student and James Rebhorn takes over as Gustin at 58. Eli and Rebhorn are both splendid, and especially winning in the way they repeat Gustin’s behavioral idiosyncrasies, such as preferring the floor over a chair for lounging. In particular, Rebhorn captures the cadence and rhythm of McMartin’s speech. McMartin does the almost impossible by making Gustin’s often disaffecting and disagreeable nature rather endearing.
The challenge that confronts director Martin is how to make Gustin’s memories resonate with urgency. Although all the women are affectingly and distinctively portrayed by Benton, their motivations are often diffused by their brevity. Isn’t there more that we need to know about Loretta’s emotional insecurity? What really fuels Zephyr’s decision to leave home suddenly at the age of 30, other than realizing that it was about time for an adult of her age? There is also a sudden and puzzling denouement regarding Suzanne that comes out of nowhere. Granted the play has to end somewhere, but is it enough that we respect Gustin’s desire to remain in the house with the resident ghosts he has become accustomed to rather than live out the rest of his life with strangers in a retirement community?
Despite my rather sour memory of Haidle’s previous play, “Mr. Marmalade,” I am inclined to regard “Saturn Returns” as a bittersweet elegy told in the light of planetary orbits and from the position of the stars. But we might well also consider (with apologies to the Bard) that “The fault, dear Gustin, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” ***
“Saturn Returns,” Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 165 West 65th Street. $65. 212-239-6200.