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‘Curve of Departure’ the ideal showcase for Mike Nussbaum’s gifts

Penelope Walker and Mike Nussbaum in "Curve of Departure. " | Michael Brosilow

Penelope Walker and Mike Nussbaum in "Curve of Departure. " | Michael Brosilow

Add Rachel Bonds to the growing list of American playwrights well worth scanning play listings for, so that you can catch whatever she writes.

Bonds hit my radar for the first time earlier this year, when Shattered Globe Theatre presented her beautiful play “Five Mile Lake,” about young people’s complex relationship with staying or leaving or returning to their own home towns.

‘CURVE OF DEPARTURE’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: $30-$88
Info: northlight.org
Run time: 70 minutes, with no intermission

Now Northlight Theatre is staging her work “Curve of Departure,” which may not be quite as dramatically compelling as “Five Mile Lake,” but certainly has its own treasurable qualities, including a quiet lyricism and an ideal role for 94-year-old actor Mike Nussbaum.

Nussbaum plays Rudy, a feisty New Yorker battling creeping dementia, who has become thoroughly reliant on his caretaker, his former daughter-in-law Linda (Penelope Walker). They are sharing a hotel room in New Mexico, having come to the Southwest for the funeral of the man who connected them, Rudy’s son and Linda’s ex-husband, whom Rudy refers to semi-regularly as a “schmuck.” Later, he’ll explain that they loved him, but didn’t always like him.

They are soon joined in this hotel room by Linda’s son, Felix (Sean Parris), and his boyfriend, Jackson (Danny Martinez), who have flown in from Bakersfield, California.

Death hangs over the proceedings, both because of the funeral and because everyone, including Rudy, knows his time is limited. One of the revelations Bonds doles out includes his oddly enthusiastic contemplations on how exactly his life should achieve its finale, which disturbs both the preternaturally anxious Felix (he was always nervous, we’re told a bunch of times), and Linda, who has made a life defined by dedicating herself first to Felix, and now to Rudy.

Felix doesn’t see himself as quite as self-sacrificing as his mother, and we soon learn that he and Jackson are struggling with a hard choice of whether to adopt Jackson’s niece, a troubled toddler victim of her parents’ drug problems.

The title of “Curve of Departure” comes from a poem by Sharon Olds. In it, the speaker contemplates her daughter’s return home from college for the first time, while remembering back to her own childhood catching bees. She would examine them and then release them: “… I remember the moment the/arc of my toss swerved, and they entered/the corrected curve of their departure.” The idea is that the play similarly depicts how these characters’ lives — this “ragtag group of humans,” Rudy calls them  — take on altered trajectories based on events, small and big and often outside of their control.

In a svelte and satisfying 70 minutes, Bonds impressively is able to make her themes come through, and even express them lyrically, without compromising fundamental realities or turning any of the situations she creates into obvious, dominant subjects of her play. This isn’t a work about dementia or drug addiction or even the loss of a loved (but not liked) one, although all those elements are present. “Curve of Departure” expresses something deeper than its plot or themes — it emanates a warmth that emerges from its particulars, its characters’ goodness, combined with their fear, based in their own experiences of others, that they can’t be good enough.

Sean Parris from left), Danny Martinez and Mike Nussbaum in a scene from "Curve of Departure" at Northlight Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Sean Parris (from left), Danny Martinez and Mike Nussbaum in a scene from “Curve of Departure” at Northlight Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

But this is also an intimate little play, setting up a claustrophobic experience for its characters, and it would be at its most potent at its most physically compact and stylistically understated. Northlight’s sizable venue isn’t the ideal space for it, and set designer Lauren Nigri chooses to emphasize a certain Southwestern spaciousness with a cavernous hotel room. And even the playing feels occasionally wanting in the degree of naturalism. It’s not that the actors aren’t excellent — they are, and in addition to Nussbaum, Penelope Walker deserves a special call-out for capturing textured complexities in a character who sometimes can seem idealized. But I found myself wishing the actors could verge closer to whispering to each other — the situation calls for it — rather than speaking with professional projection.

There will be even better productions of this play when storefronts get their opportunities with it. There won’t be better performances of the character of Rudy, though.

Nussbaum is just perfect for this role, and perfect in it. Most remarkable is that each time Rudy awakens from temporary slumber, you can somehow tell before he evens speaks whether his cognition is clear or cloudy. As the oldest working stage actor in America, Nussbaum’s presence is inspiring, but his presence combined with the quality of his acting artistry — always simultaneously straightforward but specific — is positively life-affirming.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.