Through Sunday, July 9
Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh

There’s incredible diversity among the planets, but nerds and misfits are universal. That’s the semi-comforting truth conveyed in Women’s Theatre Festival opener Space Girl, an oddly touching comedy in which three lonelyI almost said “people,” but I should say “beings”work their way toward one another.

We first glimpse this truth when bespectacled newcomer Arugula (the talented young actor Amani McKenzie) cringes her way through a lunchtime introduction to Charlotte (Lauren O’Neal), a fellow overachiever and outcast at the local high school. Asked if she has just moved here, the introverted Arugula all but writhes. “Yeah, from … Pittsburgh?” she murmurs as she retreats even further into her shell.

The question is so discomforting because Arugula and her dad are really from another planet, the fictitious Zlagdor. He’s an emissary sent to Earth to assess humankind and determine if it merits an extension of its limited supplies of oxygen and water. As a result, Arugula must go through an already unsettling adolescence in an alien culture on an alien planet.

Despite the visitors’ superior civilization and technology, comedy arises when they fail to grasp crucial subtleties. Witness their Earth names: Arugula, of course, not to mention her dad’s choice, Nancy. Then there are all those baffling gender cues and social norms. After sweetly punching out mean girls like Denise (Randi Bratton), Arugula trains to be a roller-derby jammer. With a guilty grin, she exults, “It’s going to help with my aggression.” As she pursues a crush on her trainer, a buff derby girl with the stage name Bruise Springsteen (a confident Ahnna Beruk), Arugula shyly notes, “We’re orbiting each other.”

At Sonorous Road Theatre, Katy and Sarah Koop insightfully direct a funny script by Pittsburgh’s Mora V. Harris, who is originally from Durham. Nick Popio whinnies like Emo Phillips on fast-forward as Nancy, an alien anthropologist whose interplanetary fact-finding mission devolves into a life of channel-surfing, foraying to Target, and laughing at local planetarium shows as if they were stand-up comedy.

But there’s also poignancy here, as Charlotte becomes Arugula and Nancy’s favorite human, particularly because what binds them together is how alienated they all habitually feel. Sarah Koop’s low-tech set design deliberately embraces an ad hoc, almost punk aesthetic, with random strings of lights scattered along the borders of the stage, behind the centerpiece: a wheeled cart with assorted props, light strings, and an overhead projector for the planetarium scenes. When the show works despite choices that undermine traditional stage artifice, we know there are significant strengths in scripting, direction, and acting.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Lonely Planet”