You'd think this comedy with its tie-dye fashions and anti-war marches would be hopelessly dated. Perhaps, a decade ago, it would have been. But the wheel of fashion or style or mass culture or the zeitgeist or whatever it is turns and turns. Nothing repeats itself, exactly, of course. But, suddenly, the spirit of a previous age seems to reincarnate before our eyes in a new form. For better or worse, the spirit of the '60s is back.
For instance, in the '60s, impoverished little theaters sprouted up like mushrooms. Then, there was a long period in which no one seemed interested in such doomed and romantic enterprises. Now, the impulse has returned. And that's just one symptom out of many.
In any case, it was obvious from the confident, nuanced performances of the young cast at Loyola that they understood and identified with the characters they portrayed. The Summer of Love, after all, is more than three decades behind us -- far enough back to constitute a historical challenge to actors in their 20s. But, while some of the clothes and a few of the phrases must have seemed archaic, the general mood must have been eerily familiar.
The play itself is an ingenious comedy of manners, built around a low-key vignette of unhappy romance. In the first scene, we hear a chorus of young people who, as we gradually come to realize, are laying around in the dark in order to witness their pet cat have kittens. It is an inspired set-up for the play -- and truly locks us into our seats, later on, when we learn there isn't really any cat at all.
Mike (Joseph Riley) and Cootie (Hillary Hinton) are the star fantasists in this exuberant group of collegians. They breeze through life in a kind of shared improvisation based on whatever happens to present itself. Hyper-articulate and clever, they hold onto the joys of childhood make-believe with endless and ebullient fictions.
Norman (Jason Picus) is a mathematics graduate student. He, also, is a bit of a fantasist, but is more literal, intense and, ultimately, confused when it comes to sorting his fantasies from the cold, hard facts of life. For instance, having gotten carried away with his readings about the Vietnam War, he brings a pistol to a protest march. Later, he decides to immolate himself publicly in the manner of a Buddhist monk, and actually makes the attempt.
In one sense, the play is a study of what is superficial and what is profound in young people. In the glorious freedom of student days (or daze), many outrageous episodes, even disastrous ones, are just part of the general anarchy. But some have deeper roots. And it's not always obvious which are which.
The sad undertow in Moonchildren swirls around Bob (Michael Salinas). Throughout the play, we wonder if he will succeed in breaking out of a shell of bitterness and isolation that is hardening around him. In the end, after a tough and upsetting scene with his ex-girlfriend friend Kathy (Alejandra Cejudo), we realize that -- of all the group -- he is the one who is in the deepest trouble.
Rounding out this appealing gang is Ruth (Jesse Terrebonne), Dick (Justin Moore) and Shelly (Becky Johnson). Actually, Shelly -- an amusing, innocuous stoned-out flower child who likes to sit under tables -- is a new addition, who was picked up at a protest march by Norman.
Into this vortex come various exemplars of the real world: an encyclopedia salesman (about the same age as the students themselves), their landlord (who projects his own bizarre sexual fantasies onto his rowdy tenants), a cop (who is surprisingly simpatico and patient) and a-long suffering downstairs neighbor. All are presented as comic figures, unequal to the verbal razzmatazz of young bohemia.
Director Patrick McNamara made a shrewd choice with Moonchildren, a play where all the main parts are the right age for his actors. He brought out the comedy of the piece, without ever making fun of the period depicted. And the result was a student production that only rarely felt like a student production -- and that was in those unavoidable moments when a character was just too young to believe in the part he was assigned, no matter how gamely he tried to make it real.