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MANCHESTER — Dorset Theatre Festival concludes its abbreviated, successful pandemic comeback season with a world premiere of travis tate’s new play, “Queen of the Night.”

Directed by Raz Golden, the production takes place outdoors, under the stars in a meadow of the Southern Vermont Arts Center, where the festival has created a lovely lawn-chair equipped ersatz amphitheater.

The story revolves around two Black men, recently divorced Stephen (Danny Johnson) and his millennial son, Ty (Leland Fowler), who go camping to their old haunt in southeastern Texas.

As Stephen’s ex-wife and Ty’s mother approaches her wedding date, the two men — gay son and straight father — attempt to survive the woods, and one another, braving the bears and reckoning with the wilderness of their past.

Dorset artistic director Dina Janis, who has commendably and adeptly steered her company toward fostering new plays and premieres, got the timing of this work spot-on given the ongoing pandemic distress, as well as the national conversation on race brought to the forefront during this time.

Director Golden had his charges primed by opening night, and their passion for tate’s work was palpable under the Vermont night sky.

Fowler returns to Dorset where he wowed audiences several years ago in Dominique Morriseau’s popular “Skeleton Crew.” Picking up where he left off, he made us push through the crucible of life that was Ty’s: one marked in his youth by mixed signals from loved ones, loneliness and a healthy portion of uncertainty about his place in the world.

Fowler convincingly poured out his lifelong angst in brief monologues that were uncomfortable in tone, yet moving in reception. That’s not just great writing; it’s also superlative acting.

While on superlatives, could Dorset have gotten the casting of Johnson any more right? One of the most versatile veteran actors in the industry today, there is no end to the perfection of the old-school, proud, yet deeply wounded father that Johnson carried onto the stage and sent out to us in the shadows.

Johnson winced with just the right amount of pain as he moved his burly frame in the backdrop of this story’s wilderness, and haunted us with how he seemed to painfully choose each word for Stephen’s paternal instincts. He gifted us insight and empathy into Stephen’s own helplessness as he struggled with a world that seemed to be leaving him, and all his good intentions, behind.

And while the actors were the story of this production, one cannot ignore the Herculean effort put forth by the crew of “Queen of the Night” to create a stage that resembled the wilderness, in an outdoor milieu that wasn’t really far from the genuine article.

As such, hats off and an exclusive round of applause must absolutely go to the dreamy scenic design of Christopher and Justin Swader, convincing costumes by Fabian Fidel Aguilar, haunting lights by Yuki Nakase Link, resounding sound by Megumi Katayama, complex fight choreography by David Anzuelo, and adroit stage management by that maven of timing and organization, Julia Bates.

Since this groundbreaking alfresco campaign for Dorset is brief, I would be remiss not to name-check Janis’ two ubiquitous lieutenants, production guru Will Rucker, and marketing czar Ryan Koss. The bottom line: without these two Renaissance men, whose motto must surely be “no worries; can do” there likely is no festival outdoor season this summer.

But back to the play, which is absolutely a must-see if you are in southern Vermont or anywhere within an hour drive. Much has rightfully been touted of its identity themes, but after letting it seep into my own consciousness in the week since attending the opening, it’s far more than that.

If you have ever had to face the imperfection of family life, whether as a parent or a child or both — meaning, essentially all of us — there is a takeaway in “Queen of the Night,” and it’s not fleeting, nor just knowingly humorous, as are parts of this story.

This outreach is human, it’s visceral, and more than anything: universal. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go see this meaningful new play, and discover it for yourself.

“Queen of the Night” by travis tate and directed by Raz Golden, will run through Sept. 4 at Dorset Theatre Festival’s open-air performance space at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, 930 SVAC Drive, Manchester. Socially distanced outdoor pod seating, and masks optional for fully vaccinated audience members. Tickets: call the box office at 802-867-2223, ext. 101 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org.

Telly Halkias is a national award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA). Email: tchalkias@aol.com Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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