“If I had to do it again, life that is, I would do it all exactly the same. No regrets.” -Stars in the Night
Dreams deferred, thoughts left unsaid, shameful transgressions, possibilities unexplored. It can be easy to fixate on one of the many regrets scattered throughout our past, burning bright and hot like a star in the night, drawing focus from everything around it. But when you look at it from a distance, you begin to remember all the experiences that surrounded it, notice other stars; patterns begin to form constellations that tell stories and give the star context and an entirely new meaning, a purpose. And that’s life.
These are some of the ideas twinkling after dark during performances of Stars in the Night, the latest from the dream-weavers at the Firelight Collective, who are quickly making a habit of gifting the immersive community with romantic, lyrical meditations on the universality of human experience by way of their characters’ generous vulnerability. Even the most ardent fans of their previous shows will recognize Stars as a seismic leap forward for this company in both scope and ambition. Stars is not only an achingly sublime meditation on how we let our regrets define us, but also a bold statement of the kind of stunning work the Firelight Collective is capable of.
The experience begins in the trendy bar of a luxurious Hollywood hotel, the first of over half a dozen unique and authentic playing spaces (if you count walking on sidewalks and riding in cars, which in this case you should) that the show explores throughout its nearly ninety-minute running time. The use of these many practical locales helps to ground and legitimize the characters in a way that also informs their circumstances. A scruffy looking older man in a disheveled suit (played with rueful, folksy charm by Matt Brown) orders a drink at the bar, finishing it alone before he engages with the waiting group. He exits the hotel onto the real streets of Los Angeles where he once spent better days, pointing out buildings that recall memories of a life once lived; his raw, heartbreaking story is parceled out as he waits with you for the crosswalk light to turn green. This doesn’t feel like a pat monologue of backstory and exposition designed to make us feel for a fictional character, but a wistful conversation with a man who has lost so much to the vagaries of life that fear of emotional honesty with a stranger seems a small thing compared to the comfort a momentary connection might bring. The headlights of the passing cars illuminate his world-weary face for a fleeting moment before speeding away and leaving him behind. By the time your walk with him is over, you come to understand why he needed the drink.
From there the interactions only get more personal and more emotionally affecting as each new lost soul confides in you, moored by their regrets on the shores of time. With settings so unforgiving in their naturalism, there is nowhere for an actor to hide as even a whiff of artificiality within a performance would be glaringly detectable. Happily, the entire cast rises to this challenge and thrives in their respective roles. Each performer exhibited a winning ease and adeptness at juggling the show’s beautiful script with small moments of improvisation. Here you are invited to do a bit more than silently stare at the action playing out in front of you (with one notable exception during the show’s jewel of a climax, a glorious two-hander performed with lived-in freneticism by David Haley and Allison Byrnes), though the actors do a fine job of indicating when it is time to settle back and just enjoy the story.
Of particular note in this regard are Davonna Dehay, who provides the piece with a welcome dose of humor and impeccable timing in the show’s final half, and Maura McCarthy, who exhibited such a naturalistic confidence and conversational tone during her portion that for a moment I wondered whether she was speaking in character or as herself. Special mention must also be made of Deanna Noe, whose elegant and nuanced performance brings the piece’s most complete arc to life and ultimately to a rapturous conclusion. As the story progresses, one slowly becomes aware of some fascinating choices the writers have made regarding how, why, and, most importantly, when the audience is watching these scenes play out, along with whispers of a connecting plot that begin to reveal themselves by the final moments, suggesting there is more to the night’s vignettes than a mere spiritual collage. However, all of this is done with the greatest subtlety so as not to distract from the broader message.
We all carry our regrets with us, painful souvenirs of a time in our lives we wish we could revisit. But when you dwell on a regret you nourish nothing within yourself but that regret. It is in the past where nothing new of yourself could ever possibly grow. As Stars in the Night so beautifully conveys, after every moment of darkness, there is the possibility of light, more chances, more life still to live… until there isn’t. So learn from them and let them go. Allow them guide you but not define you. And then maybe, if you’re lucky, as you look back on all that’s past as if through a clouded glass, you’ll see a life of successes, failures, joys, sorrows— but no regrets. For the second time this year, the Firelight Collective has created a melancholy work of art that inspires you to reflect on your own life and possibly inform the way you live it. I can think of no higher praise. See this show if you can. You won’t regret it.
For their official website, visit https://www.sfstheatre.com/firelight