YSU’s ‘Small World’ is big delight

If you go …

WHAT: “It’s a Small World (or The Robot Play)”

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 25 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

WHERE: Spotlight Theater, Bliss Hall, Youngstown State University

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $16 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and YSU alums, $9 YSU faculty and staff and free for YSU students and are available online at www.ysu.tix.com and by calling 330-941-3105.

YOUNGSTOWN — Cyrus’s creator calls it “a failed design.”

That makes the coffee maker turned sentient android very much like the humans who surround it in “It’s a Small World (or The Robot Play),” which opened Friday and runs through Feb. 25 in Youngstown State University’s Spotlight Theater.

Written by YSU graduate Amber Palmer, “Small World” is often funny and equally heartbreaking.

It’s easy to understand why the theater department wanted to show off the talents of one of its former students, and Palmer should be pleased with the care her alma mater has taken with her creation.

The storyline centers around a road trip between Anne, a recovering addict struggling with her sobriety, and the robot Cyrus, which was created by Anne’s estranged friend Adam after the death of his son. Adam named the robot after his child and takes him to Disney World, a trip he never got to take with the boy.

However, he abandons the robot on the It’s a Small World ride and contacts Anne, the only person he knows in Florida, to retrieve Cyrus and ship him home to New York. Anne was in the throes of addiction and unavailable when Adam’s child died, and she decides to deliver the robot in person in hopes of repairing their fractured friendship.

Along the way, it’s obvious that Cyrus’s sentience is advancing beyond Adam’s programming, which creates problems as Anne realizes that Adam plans to destroy the robot once it is returned.

The fantastical premise allows Palmer to explore issues of grief and loss and the need for “human” connection, even if that connection comes from something not quite human.

The production is anchored by strong performances by Lauren Ladd as Anne and Aiden Holderfield as Cyrus.

Ladd’s Anne is an open wound who uses her prickly and acerbic demeanor as a shield of protection. Ladd’s performance is full of biting humor while never letting the audience forget that it is a mechanism to hide her inner pain.

Aiden Holderfield is her perfect foil as Cyrus. Palmer certainly isn’t the first writer to use an alien / robot character to illuminate human foibles, but the storytelling device is used effectively here. Holderfield conveys the character’s otherness along with its evolution over the course of the story. The audience believes Anne grows to care about Cyrus because Holderfield makes the audience care about Cyrus.

Holderfield’s characterization is aided by the costuming and makeup of Katherine Garlick. The costume hints at Cyrus’s coffeemaker roots without turning him into an animatronic Keurig, and a simple makeup on each side of his mouth is surprisingly effective in creating a “robotic” jaw.

Director Todd Dicken’s work with the actors keeps the many shifts between humor and drama from being jarring. His set design — using rear screen projections and a collection of different shaped boxes to stand in for the car or rearranged for other set needs — allows for smooth, fast transitions between scenes, which is a necessity in a play with 22 scenes.

The rest of the cast — Gunnar Carwile, Cherish Michele and Anthony Mudryk — is effective, and Laynee Sanger adds a jolt of hilarious energy early in the second act as the pipe-puffing hippie curator of The Museum of Lost Things.

In the program notes, Palmer dedicates the production to her father, Bruce Palmer, “who taught me to boldly follow my passions and to love the arts.”

Bruce Palmer, who was a photographer for this newspaper and who I worked with for several years, died in 2022. I couldn’t help but think as I watched the play how proud he would have been Friday. That only added to the emotional impact of the impressive work his daughter has conceived.



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