The Harry Chapin song "Taxi" has been driving through my head ever since I watched Friday night's opening of "Shooting Star" at Park Square Theatre. Better that, I suppose, than Dan Fogelberg's schmaltzy "Same Auld Lang Syne."
Both songs play with the same trope that playwright Steven Dietz leans on in his two-person play — the unexpected reunion of old lovers.
Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen portray middle-age folks who meet by chance in an airport. They haven't seen each other in 25 years, we are told, since roaring out of college in Madison, Wis.
As you might guess, one of these characters has found hollow success in the world, while the other is more or less happy improvising her way through life's mixed salad. (You remember "The Big Chill," right?)
This dramatic setup is familiar because it works for audiences who enjoy being reminded that they once were young and a little reckless. It's comfortable, and Dietz has evoked the redolent nostalgia and regret that hang around our souls deep into middle age.
Wingert plays Elena Carson, a free spirit on her way to Boston to visit an equally free-spirited friend. Benninghofen's Reed McAllister, decked in suit and tie, grinds his teeth because he's been sent on what he suspects will be a fruitless sales trip in Texas.
Fate gives them one more ride on the merry-go-round when snow socks in the Midwestern airport where they are catching connecting flights.
Dietz doesn't have much new to say about this situation. Not that this is a requirement, but the play gives way too easily in the mind to other attempts at the same idea. This is why all I can hear is Harry Chapin singing, "She was gonna be an actress …"
There are surprises to be had. We learn some secrets. In one poignant speech, Wingert's Elena reveals how close she came to committing to Reed during a crisis they endured together in college. This is where Dietz finds his rhythm and voice. In other instances, the script presents bumps and rough spots. Director Leah Cooper doesn't quite patch those holes.
Wingert has the more interesting character in Elena, and the actor's personality has lots of room to roam. This is not a finely crafted performance, such as Wingert's stunning portrayal of Maria Callas last fall in "Master Class," but a freewheeling and fun ride. Elena is a kind and decent person, and Wingert gets to the heart of that.
Benninghofen's Reed shoulders the greater sense of remorse in his life — perhaps channeling the stereotypical pressures of the push-push-push business he is in. His family life has suffered, which makes him weary and also nostalgic for the days when he could be stupid. These psychic subtleties aside, Benninghofen looks the same as he has in several recent performances.
There isn't much to say about Kit Mayer's set other than it's efficient and looks like a slice of an airport concourse. Michael Kittel helps Cooper fashion distinct scenes with his lighting scheme.
"Shooting Star" revels in that wonderful world of reunions. We love these old friends because they were witness to our youth. They can testify that we were there. Dietz's essay does not quite seal the deal, but he reminds us that we all have a past.