The action takes place in the New England cabin owned by Abbey's parents Frank (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Molly (Mary McCann). Here we meet Abbey and Donald as 22-year-olds and then as 47-year-olds, this time played by Ryan and McCann, doing double duty. McCann pulls off the gender switch without a hitch; you're aware that the actor is female but, in the context of the scene it ceases to matter. More complicated casting: The 47-year-old Abbey has twin boys, Reef and Skim, played by...Messina and Gold. The playwrights seem to have the most fun in this second section with their protagonists at age 47, as they suggest some of the changes in technology and morality that may lie ahead for us. At the heart of the scene, however, is the confrontation between Donald and Abbey, who have become virtual strangers. Their verbal sparring barely conceals the love and anger beneath their words.
Then its 25 years later and we meet the characters for a third time, with Ralph Waite playing Donald and Larry Keith as the 72-year-old Abbey. The future has gone from dark to apocalyptic, and Donald is caring for the wheelchair-bound Abbey. They're once more in the cabin while their younger selves "ghost" them, replaying their movements (with a few differences) from the initial scene of the play.
The sci-fi elements of the show don't distract from the emphasis on human relationships that is the essence of the play. The love between Donald and Abbey is complex. At two different times (and in two different time periods), Donald professes his love for his friend. Each time, he's asked whether it's a sexual love and responds by saying that he wishes it were that simple. There's certainly a homoerotic undercurrent to the characters' interactions, whether they're showing each other their penises as young men or making life and death decisions about each other in their advanced years; and yet, it's unclear whether the two ever become lovers. It's not that the play shies away from same-sex coupling (far from it), but ultimately, that's not what it's about.
Lucas directs his six-person ensemble with finesse. Gold and Messina have an easy chemistry, as do Waite and Keith. However, it's the middle couple of Ryan and McCann that really stands out. This may have something to do with the script, as the young Abbey and Donald are beset by inertia and the oldest versions of the pair by a kind of resignation. Both characters seem to be most passionate at age 47; they argue, verbally wound each other, and hold out hope for reconciliation.
The play takes its title from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero delivers the line in reference to the entrance of Caliban in the final act: "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine." Lucas and Schulner suggest an interpretation that is less literal; the darkness is the unknown, a future that the young protagonists of the play don't quite understand. The show's ending leaves open the possibility that the destinies of these young men are not as fixed as they might seem. Following the visions of the future, Abbey seems ready to make some changes in how he's living his life.
Despite its heavy-handed themes and literary allusions, This Thing of Darkness is surprisingly funny. If audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride, this intermissionless hour and a half is well worthwhile.