The title of "Pluto" provides clues as to what the new play is about, but they are far from obvious.
On one level, director Mark Routhier says, it's a reference to the celestial body once deemed a major planet by scientists but later downgraded to "dwarf planet."
"It shows that things aren't always what they seem," says Routhier, who heads up new-play development at Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
On another, more chilling, level, Pluto is also a name ancient peoples gave to their god of the dead.
That gives an inkling of the themes "Pluto" the play raises — life, death, grief and the idea that even our own family members can be strangers to us. "Pluto" is debuting this season around the country; the Shakes production, which opens March 1, is only its fourth staging.
Routhier describes the work as "a fairy tale for adults," and indeed the play is full of fantastical occurrences for single mother Elizabeth Miller. A tree has crashed upside down through the kitchen ceiling. Cerberus, the mythological three-headed dog who guarded the underworld, pays a visit. And strangest of all, time does not seem to function in its usual manner.
Throughout the strangeness, Elizabeth is on a most maternal mission: Reconnecting with her young-adult son Bailey.
"She has heard on the radio that something horrible has happened," explains Routhier, reluctant to divulge too much of the mysterious plot. "She has an intuition that it might involve her son."
While it will likely take audience members some time to figure out exactly what is going on, Routhier says, they can instantly empathize with the mother-son relationship.
Playwright Steve Yockey is especially mindful of the widening gap between a parent and a child as the child ages into adulthood, says Chris Metz, who plays Bailey.
"You have a person in your house who's now like a stranger. You don't know what they do when they go out on their own," he says. "I think a lot of teens and parents can relate to that."
Metz, a 2012 University of Central Florida graduate, acts opposite Suzanne O'Donnell as Elizabeth. She says life experience made the role appealing.
"I did the ultimate in research and had two kids of my own," quips O'Donnell, who has acted in plays including "God of Carnage" and most recently "It's a Wonderful Life" for the Shakes. Then she turns serious.
"Being a parent is the best acting class ever," she says. "It grows your heart in ways you can't imagine."
Rehearsing for "Pluto" is an emotional experience, the actors agree. Metz tries to explain why:
"I think it's very difficult for parents to watch their children go through something so hard that they don't have any solutions to offer, whether in real life or a story," he says. "The material in this play is unfortunately prevalent in today's society. There are people who feel misguided or desperate or alone or have some kind of rage and don't know how to channel it."
The symbolism and mythological references in "Pluto" are essential to convey the play's outpouring of emotion, O'Donnell says.
"You have to break into imagery," she says. "Because our everyday words just don't cut it."
And when "Pluto" ends, audience members are likely to be emotional as well.
"I can't imagine seeing this and not wanting to share your own thoughts and feelings on it all," Metz says.
O'Donnell agrees: "It's the sort of thing where afterward you'll need to get a cup of coffee and talk about the play. It packs a powerful punch."
• What: An Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of a new play by Steve Yockey
• When: Opens March 1; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday plus Wednesday, March 5; through March 23
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• Tickets: $25, except the March 5 show, which is $17; $15 military and students reserving in advance; $12 student-rush tickets 30 minutes before showtime
• Call: 407-447-1700
• Online: orlandoshakes.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun