Sometimes, it’s what’s not said that holds far more weight that what is said. The spaces in between words are what give “The Aliens,” by rising star playwright Annie Baker, its considerable emotional depth. So, if you see it in its Maine premiere Thursday, Feb. 2, at the Stonington Opera House, produced by Opera House Arts, be prepared to enjoy the silence — it’s what makes “The Aliens” such an engaging and realistic show.
“The Aliens” unfolds over the course of a summer, in Baker’s fictional town of Shirley, Vt. Seventeen-year-old Evan (Chris Bellant) works at a coffee shop, where he meets two interesting individuals — stoner philosopher KJ (Josh Bywater), and Jasper (Danny Jones), an occasionally intense writer and artist, neither of whom operate within society’s mainstream.
In fact, the two best friends, both in their 30s, are happy to live in their own world, which centers around the back lot of said coffee shop, where Evan meets them. Though there’s plenty of smart, often hilarious dialogue, there’s just as much quiet movement and reflective silence.
“In the play itself, she writes that it should be at least one-third silence,” said director Peter Richards, who directed “Elizabeth Rex” last summer for Opera House Arts. “It’s not an impediment to the story in the least. It’s an essential part of it. It demands something of the audience. It reveals how these characters think and behave. You have to get out of its way and let the silence tell the story, as much as the words might.”
The story is that Evan is also a bit of a misfit. He doesn’t have any friends at school and he’s searching for an identity, which KJ and Jasper have in spades. Jasper, a sometimes volatile but extremely eloquent high school dropout, is obsessed with Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, and is in the process of writing a book. The quietly brilliant KJ has some unspecified psychological problems, and is a regular user of psychedelic drugs. Evan, in his awkward and even sweet way, begins to attach himself to them. They see something of themselves in Evan — an outsider and a free thinker — but also see his potential to grow beyond that.
“Evan is hungry to connect with someone, and these two guys aren’t like anyone he’s ever encountered,” said Richards. “And Jasper and KJ see him as a kindred spirit. They don’t have a home in the normal world, but they’ve found a way of living that is unique to them. They’re incredibly open to anything and anyone, and they welcome Evan in.”
Baker’s other plays include the hilarious “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a play from 2009 which shared a 2010 Obie Award with “The Aliens,” about a group of people attending a theater workshop in the same town of Shirley, Vt. It is still in production with The Theater Project in Brunswick, through Feb. 19.
Her plays have a kind of organic flow to them — they deal with real-seeming people in real-seeming small towns, with dialogue that feels extremely natural. Bellant, Bywater and Jones are relaxed and understated, and hit all the correct comedic notes in their respective roles.
“She has a really unique way of writing about rural life and small towns,” said Richards, who compares her favorably to John Cariani, who wrote the similarly rural “Almost, Maine.” “It’s nice to see people who so rarely have a voice be given a voice. It’s not patronizing in the least, though. It’s very honest. It’s unvarnished. And it’s very funny. You are surprised by the things you laugh at.”
Funny, and at times gritty and even profane — Jasper and KJ’s problems are decidedly adult, and they are discussed in adult terms. Evan receives a crash course in grownup problems and grownup ways of dealing with things, and the play becomes as much a portrait of three distinct characters as it does a coming-of-age story. And though all three have their faults and dark sides, all three are inherently likeable.
“You’ve met them before,” said Richards. “You know these people.”
“The Aliens” runs Feb. 2-5 and Feb. 9-12, with shows at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, at the Stonington Opera House. Tickets are available at the Opera House Arts box office, and online at operahousearts.org.