by Michael Bowen

People sometimes look back on their lives and say, "I have no regrets." And we're supposed to nod and smile? Did they never leave their kitchens? If you haven't made any mistakes, you've been watching too much Wheel of Fortune.

Steven Dietz's Rocket Man (at CenterStage dinner theater through March 12) employs interesting characters and intriguing dialogue to imagine what it would be like to revisit some of your major life decisions. What if you took the road not taken the first time? What if you could disconnect from your regrets?

This is thought-provoking comedy of the best kind. Middle-aged Donny (Thomas Heppler) is cleaning out his attic and his life. Divorced from his wife Rita (Stephanie Brush), at odds with his teenage daughter Trisha (Kristin Danielle McKernan), and disappointed by all the major projects he's taken on in life and never finished, Donny escapes by imagining other worlds, other dimensions, the far reaches of the universe.

In fact, he decides it might be a good idea to pay those far reaches a visit. He's joined by a couple of friends who also have otherworldly concerns: Louise (Maria Caprile), who can't sleep partly because of the stress of training to become a pastor, and Buck (Reed McColm), who cracks jokes to escape his loneliness but may be hearing voices.

Just 72 hours before the first show, a decision was made to replace one of the five cast members. McColm stepped into the substantial part of Buck and, remarkably, was off-book for opening night. (You try memorizing 34 pages of dialogue in less than three days.) He must've been scrambling even faster than the human hamster he portrays in that local TV commercial.

Anyway, in Dietz's world, the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" is a mantra. The characters in Rocket Man want to travel 15 billion light years, they want to become priests, they want to go to Italy, they just want to get their hands on the car keys -- and they don't always get what they want. Donny, however, is the only one who intends to do anything about it. The first act ends with some cool son et lumiere effects implying that Donny has gone through a major life change. After intermission, you discover that's not the half of it.

As Donny, the focal character, Heppler has the idealism down. In a lovely final image, Donny begins to fulfill one of his major dreams -- though not, in the manner of this play, without unexpected losses that will soon turn into regrets of another kind. Heppler is just wacky enough to be the guy who tosses out every last one of his possessions -- but we miss the desperation of a man who just ... might ... do anything to rid himself of disappointment.

Buck, a lonely widower, goes to a hairdresser just so his lonely guy's scalp can feel a woman's touch. McColm turns comedy into pathos, just like that -- from Buck being ridiculous (and knowing it) to Buck being sad and alone. He created one hilarity after another, following them up with disturbing tweaks that rounded out a character he hadn't had much time to investigate. McColm (recently in ARt's The Drawer Boy) keeps turning in wonderful, well-observed performances.

Caprile's character -- the love interest that Donny never quite connected with -- is blunt and sleepless, on a spiritual quest. Caprile is convincing on the blunt, spiritual side, but less so on the anxiety-filled sleepless dimension or the romantic sparks with Donny. Brush's character, the ex-wife, has the advantage there.

McKernan is good as the teenager perpetually exasperated by her demanding parents -- she is, after all, a student at Central Valley High School. But she's less convincing in an important birthday party speech near the end. There, when she needs to be nostalgic and inspiring, she continues to be chirpy.

Susan Hardie (a former Inlander employee) directs the argument-and-reconciliation scenes very well by moving her actors apart and then together. Even in a play about time shifts, however, it wasn't clear why all the entrances had to be so lengthy and in full view of the audience -- ruining surprise entrances -- when another CenterStage door beckoned.

Rocket Man ends up being about the choices we make. It may be amusing to fantasize about alternate choices, parallel universes and having a Free Do-Over Pass in life. But the fact is that time only flows in one direction. By showing us what might be but isn't, Dietz wants us to focus hard on the decisions we actually do make in our lives. That way, even if you choose wrong, at least you can live with the regret.

Publication date: 2/24/05

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.