It’s been a long voyage for Erin Treadway, the sole actor onstage during Spaceman. The play—which, this week, is finishing up its run at the Wild Project theater on East 3rd Street—was originally supposed to have had a full run last year. But it was cut short when, during a curtain call, Treadway tripped over a speaker and broke both her arms.
That she tripped while standing firmly on the stage floor is somewhat ironic, because Treadway spends the majority of this 100-minute play three feet off the ground. She plays Molly Jennis, an astronaut on a solo mission to Mars in a not-distant future (through sponsorship, Twitter and Target have each purchased visible real estate on her spacesuit), and the elevated set really does feel like it’s floating. “It was in the safest place possible,” Treadway said, of the speaker that delayed the life of this project. “You imagine so many things that can go wrong, and that is not one of them.” By the time Spaceman finally opened again last month—after it was shuttered, its actor had healed, and its complex tech elements were re-loaded into a theater space—it was nothing short of a relief for its actor and crew.
Treadway has been making theater in New York since she moved here in 2000; since 2011, she’s been doing so with Loading Dock, the company she runs with her husband Leegrid Stevens, who is also Spaceman’s playwright.
“We saw Happy Days with Fiona Shaw a few years ago at BAM,” Treadway recalled, referencing the absurdist Beckett comedy about a woman literally buried alive. “We got excited by the idea of this woman buried up to her neck, but still trying to find ways to be happy and pass the time.” That’s what sparked Spaceman for Treadway and Stevens; although their play has changed to take on additional themes, it does still feel very much like Happy Days in space. The set is a capsule-like space station that quickly begins to signal claustrophobia; the light and sound design is heavy, and in moments of Molly’s panic, oppressive. But mostly, we’re watching this woman isolated, monologuing, kind of losing it. Passing the time.
One of the themes that’s been added to Spaceman in the intervening years is the search for God—or something like God, an answer in the cosmos (think Contact, if somewhat less successfully poetic). At the start of the play, we learn that Molly is an atheist and a scientist, someone who understands the universe through knowable facts. It’s a fact that her husband, an astronaut who perished on a spacewalk because of a loose tether, died in a preventable way. Sometimes, it seems Molly has decided to interpret this event as truly senseless, disconnected from any universal meaning (“We’re always searching for things that aren’t there,” she says, in a discouraged moment). But at other times, she seems so determined to find meaning, we’re inclined to scan the skies for it with her.
“It’s a dream, being able to play someone who is really grappling with the biggest ideas a person can grapple with,” Treadway said. “Is it better to believe, or to think that this world is all we have?”
For this actor, taking on such huge questions and carrying a show this physically and emotionally demanding has been exhausting, but rewarding. “Before I go out onstage, I just think about the first moment. To think about the whole thing—every time, it’s a bit daunting, because the task is so huge,” she said. “But there’s something so healing and satisfying about it.” She only has a few performances left of this run, which has been a long time coming. She’s still taking it one small step at a time.