In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Reese Parish and Rachael Zientek star in "Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven" from Renaissance Theaterworks. (PHOTO: Ross Zentner)

Renaissance's "Annie Jump" creates a most charming and unusual UFO encounter

What if our first encounter with extra-terrestrial intelligent life doesn't go at all like we've imagined? Instead of E.T., or Jabba the Hutt, or Alf, what if evidence that we're not alone in the universe came in the form of a hologram named Althea (Rachael Zientek), a somewhat obnoxious teenage girl who's obesessed with her hair and nails?

Sure, she knows everything that can possibly be known in universe and she's here to recruit future rock star scientists who will contribute to a vault of intergalactic knowledge known as the "library of heaven" ... but can you really take an alien seriously when she's wearing in a super frilly summer dress, a pink dotted jean jacket and OMG the absolute cutest pair of sandals that totally bring that outfit together?

This is the question facing Annie Jump (the clear-eyed Reese J. Parish), a 13 year-old science genius living in a small town in Kansas. But figuring out whether her new alien guide Althea, the "visual manifestation of a mindfurl of an intergalactic super computer," is on the level about choosing her to be the first human on the library of heaven staff is only part of her problem. There's also this super geeky guy KJ (the appropriately awkward Jarrod Langwinski) who's pulled a mean prank on her father (a heartbreaking Jonathan Gillard Daly) but is also developing a crush on Annie.

Then there's her grandparents in faraway Chicago, who keep suing for custody since her mother died when Annie was young, and her father keeps going off his meds. And finally there's the question of how she's really going to advance her education and reach her full potential if she stays in the backwater town of Strawberry, with only the kind-hearted, part-time Spanish teacher, part-time science teacher Mrs. Gomez (the delightful Karen Estrada) to support her.

Annie's journey through all these earthly complications and sci-fi possibilities is the crux of "Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven," currently onstage at the Broadway Theatre Center as Reniassance Theaterworks' final production of the season. This is the first script to make the leap to the mainstage after development in RTW's new play workshop Br!NK. The play, by Chicago author Reina Hardy, is scheduled for two more productions – in Texas and Connecticut – as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere.

The fact that Renaissance has had such an important role in the play's development is truly a feather in the company's cap, and the production, directed by Pam Kriger, is a charming mash-up of science fiction fantasy, family drama and PSA for young women to go into STEM field careers.

Technically the production is impressive due to John Fischer's computer animation, which takes up the entire back wall of the stage. A digital rendering stands in for the the sets of an office, a school science lab, a field oustide of town and Annie's room, as well as providing dazzling animation of starry skies, meteor showers and various journeys through space. The simple set, designed by Jason Fassl, consists of flexible furniture pieces that provide a minimalist foreground for the wall of images.

Emotionally the story is centered firmly on Annie's relationship with her father Dr. Jump, a psychology PhD with some mental health issues of his own, and a reputation as a crackpot in the community due to his attempts to communicate with alien beings. Parish is convincing as the confused teen who is not really equipped to parent her unpredictable father, and Daly is absolutely magical in his role as the unbalanced, relentless optimist whose love for his daughter is larger than the universe he so wants to reach out to.

An interesting combination of live performance and video, the 85-minute play is sometimes saccharine and predictable, but also occasionally profound. Regardless, you'll never look at a stray piece of sporting equipment the same way again.


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