In the same way Chekhov can leave some theatergoers screaming at the characters on stage to do something — anything! — playwright Annie Baker demands our patience and steady attention. Baker would resist comparisons to the great Russian dramatist, although both writers find urgent dissatisfaction and turmoil in the laziest rhythms of mundane life. It is between the psychic cracks and in the silent pauses — words unstated, histories imagined — in which Baker’s well-observed characters find their power.
Walking Shadow Theatre Company finds the tics, the disappointments, the small triumphs and tragic realities in “The Aliens,” a small three-character play, set in the back patio of a coffee shop. Designer Erica Zaffarano keeps it simple and funky with dumpsters, a plastic lawn chair and a picnic table. Katharine Horowitz contributes a subtle and essential soundscape of the distinct, lonely sounds of a small town.
Baker writes with honest affection for these outsiders (perfectly dressed by costumer Amy Hill). Jasper (Paul Rutledge) and KJ (Paul LaNave) are 30-ish dudes defined by their inability to move beyond adolescence. Jasper broods over a recent breakup; KJ lets his freak flag fly with nary a care. Jasper has written a novel about a guy who rides disillusioned into the American sunset; KJ writhes in spontaneous interpretive dance and sings oddball songs.
Evan (Spencer H. Levin), a geeky teen barista, tries to chase off this less than dynamic duo and, after they resist, joins them in a confederacy of misfits.
Director John Heimbuch spins all this together in a production that creeps up and grabs our heart, especially when Baker delivers a devastating second-act plot point.
So take your time, as Baker helps us to appreciate the quiet desperation of everyday life. It’s worth the effort.