The title “Out of Orbit” suggests an object on an unintentional elliptical path, out-of-sync with expectations, doomed to crash and burn.
Emily Sutton-Smith is Sara, jet propulsion scientist recently thrust into the top NASA Mars Rover project director spot.
Sara has been around the block, had that, done that, endured harassments, power plays. She’s been passed over, her scientific knowledge underappreciated and undervalued, but now — she’s in charge.
In an opening soliloquy, Sutton-Smith reflects on each tortured step along the way. Despite the hardships, Sara loves her job, as challenging as it is.
Eventually, we discover that she is also the single parent of a gifted but learning developed teenage daughter. The question emerges — can a woman, a mother, be passionately and hopelessly devoted to her job and still attend to the emerging emotional and psychological needs of an adolescent daughter?
When the Mars Rover suddenly starts to not transmit messages, and, concurrently, Sarah’s daughter texts an enigmatic message — that “she is off the grid.” What’s a single mother to do?
Suffer the seeming dilemma, of course. She is an object out of orbit.
Sutton Smith gives us a hard-nosed scientist with an intellectual passion for space travel. Her parenting, however, appears to veer. On the one hand, she relentlessly focuses on helicoptering minutiae, on the other hand, she completely forgets significant meetings set up to discuss her daughter’s academic shortcomings.
This is one of Sutton-Smith’s finest performances, a character so unique I had to check the program to see who the actor was.
It’s always difficult onstage to convey the complexities of being a hard-nosed, female, consummate professional, while also being a single parent navigating the mission of assisting an equally passionate young women to early adulthood.
Sutton-Smith nails it with empathy and distraction, preoccupation and genuine love. Christine Eliot is Lisa, the daughter, articulate with words, but often unable to put them together in a way that makes sense to her.
She is gangly yet graceful, has unanswerable questions as to the meaning of life and where she imagines her own life might lead her. Her mother’s accomplishments are intimidating. She fears that a similar path is being dropped on her shoulders.
No small trick to be able to capture this character, but young Eliot handles it with style. A handful of supporting characters drift on and off the stage, all of whom are effective in their roles, each doing admirable service driving the two person plot.
Surrounding the acting, Jeromy Hopgood has created a scenic design reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” mysterious rectangles, onto which Alison Dobbins has projected NASA headquarters, pictures of Mars, the moon rover and more.
Things often resolve onstage, in theater. The Mars Rover wakes up after a brief coma, the absent daughter returns home no worse for wear, and mother and daughter reunite with a healthy recognition of the normality of children growing up, finding a life of their own.