‘Deceptively simple’

Directing “The Aliens,” John Heimbuch searches for meaning in the ordinary.

Left to right, Paul Rutledge, Paul LaNave and Spencer H. Levin.

Photo courtesy of Dan Norman

Left to right, Paul Rutledge, Paul LaNave and Spencer H. Levin.

Austen Macalus

Although its title may suggest otherwise, “The Aliens” is a play about ordinary people in ordinary situations. 
Set in a small Vermont town, the piece centers on an unlikely relationship between two regular customers loitering at a coffee shop and the young barista who wants them gone. 
Taking inspiration from Charles Bukowski’s poem of the same name, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker premiered the play off-Broadway in 2010. 
This past Friday, “The Aliens” made its Midwest debut at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis. Directed by John Heimbuch of Walking Shadow Theatre Company, the show will run through Feb. 27.
Heimbuch discovered the piece after seeing another one of Baker’s plays at the Guthrie. Receiving “The Aliens” among a batch of Baker’s scripts from the director of the Guthrie show, Heimbuch immediately knew he wanted to direct the play. 
“I was just so taken by the theatricality and the strength of the simplicity in her style,” Heimbuch said.
Actor Paul LaNave plays one of the customers in the shop. He also appreciated the sincere approach of the play.
“It’s honest human interaction,” LaNave said. “There are really big ideas, but the dialogue itself and the communication happening between characters is so simple and so much like our everyday interactions.”
To establish the rich depths within the characters, Heimbuch recognized the importance of finding ties between each scene.
“It’s the connections between those things that are worth watching,” Heimbuch said.
He compared the play to a bunch of pushpins connected by a single string, explaining that meaning only came with interdependence.
“If something is mentioned in one scene, it’s actually connected to some other piece of information in another scene,” Heimbuch said. “It’s up to us to figure out what those connections are.”
But presenting the ordinary in no way means producing the piece was easy. Heimbuch and LaNave acknowledged the difficulty of combining candor and significance.
LaNave describes the play as “deceptively simple.”
“The dialogue was very complex,” LaNave said. “The complexities and the obstacles for characters — what they find difficult in their lives — are the things in between the lines.” 
The process of handling silence in the script was especially difficult. Baker intentionally wrote breaks and pauses throughout much of the dialogue. 
“[Baker] specifies the play needs to be about one-third silences. I took that to mean every pause that exists in the play can’t be a nice pause — it can’t be a pause where nothing happens,” Heimbuch said. “It must be a pause that is pregnant, filled to the brim with emotionalism.”
LaNave also pointed out the silence. 
“It’s about making those pauses have as much meaning or even more meaning than the actual dialogue,” LaNave said.
As such, much of the five-week rehearsal period focused on working through these intricacies. LaNave said there was a lot of “table talk,” dissecting and discussing each moment within the play. 
Whereas most productions run through this process once, the cast of “The Aliens” extended the process, returning to the script multiple times. 
“We focused really on what people are trying to say — what people are trying to get out of it,” Heimbuch said. 
LaNave said the communication process among cast members was effective.
“Through the openness and through the dialogue we were able to be pretty in touch with how each individual is working with each of these moments,” LaNave said. 
He attributed that in large part to Heimbuch’s guidance. 
“He does what any great director would do — ask questions,” LaNave said. “Not necessarily telling specifics with each moment … but asking what it means to you.” 
“The Aliens”
Where Red Eye Theater, 15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
When 7 p.m. Thursday, runs through Feb. 27
Cost $22, $15 for students