“Deep Dark Nothingness” Is a Thoughtful Rumination on All the Ways We Fail to Connect

A person gives a strained smile, eyes closed, with hands in front of them in prayer position.

Vanessa Davis in Deep Dark Nothingness (Manon Halliburton)

Within Kansas City’s robust theatre scene, there is a growing community dedicated to championing local artists and fostering new works. Written by Sarah Aptilon and directed by Rusty Sneary, Deep Dark Nothingness is a collaboration between teams of entirely local artists. After a development process involving multiple readings (including as part of KC Public’s exciting Theatre Lab Series), the play, presented by Paso a Paso Productions in association with The Living Room Theatre, Midwest Trust Center, and Johnson County Community College, recently had its page-to-stage debut at the Midwest Trust Center’s Bodker Blackbox Theatre. 

In Aptilon’s dark comedy, a family has gathered for an extended vacation centered around witnessing a total eclipse, and no one is thrilled to be there. The family’s matriarch, Denise (a stellar Peggy Friesen giving a chillingly bottled-up performance) is bitterly unhappy, lashing out at her family with hypercritical jabs, enraged by politics but unable to keep cable news off of the TV or disengage from her cell phone. She has received a dire medical prognosis shortly before the start of the play, which is surely intensifying her anger—and her daughters’ excessive attentiveness isn’t helping things—but we can also tell her antagonism and the strains in these relationships are far from new, just magnified.

Denise’s adult daughters, Vanessa (Vanessa Davis) and Scout (Nellie Maple) have also made this trip. Scout is their mother’s golden child while Vanessa can’t seem to elicit anything but disdain from Denise. Scout and her boyfriend Wade (played by Sneary), who has joined her for the vacation, seem happy and are about to move in together but when tested, their ability to communicate—to be honest with each other or even themselves—falls apart. Wade also harbors a bigger secret that isn’t introduced until late in the play and is (perplexingly) left largely unresolved but nonetheless highlights the gulf between them in their ability to communicate.

An older woman looks wistful
Peggy Friesen in Deep Dark Nothingness (Manon Halliburton)

Vanessa is, ostensibly, the only member of this family actively seeking connection. As everyone around her deflects and distracts themselves by sinking their attention into their phones, Vanessa is unrelenting in her attempts to engage. She puts up her own barriers, though, having convinced herself that her methods of communication and care are objectively correct, no matter what her family might want. She has placed unreasonable expectations on this 10-day vacation, pressing for a breakthrough in her fraught relationship with her mother and hoping for nothing less than an emotional transformation caused by the eclipse. The only characters she does presumably have a natural, open bond with are her children, who are on this vacation but remain unseen to us, only serving as yet another point of contention between Vanessa and her mother and mother’s boyfriend, Jim (Robert Elliott). Davis gives a phenomenal performance throughout, managing to find levels of nuance in Vanessa’s perpetual tightly wound, forced zen desperation.

Deep Dark Nothingness is a complex examination of the ways in which we fail to connect with one another—what we feel compelled to keep hidden from others and even from ourselves. Asking audiences to watch deeply unhappy people unable to communicate for two hours is a gamble and the result feels particularly subjective—viewers’ level of patience will likely vary depending on how personally connected they feel to these characters. But Aptilon’s provocative script urges us to confront these habits and how they manifest in ourselves. It never drags, and Sneary’s tight direction along with compelling performances from the entire ensemble make for an engaging piece of art for anyone excited to support local theatre development.

“Deep Dark Nothingness,” presented by Paso a Paso Productions in association with The Living Room Theatre, Midwest Trust Center, and Johnson County Community College, ran at the Bodker Black Box Theatre in the Midwest Trust Center at JCC (12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kansas) through June 23.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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