By the Music of the Spheres, Goodman Theatre. Carson Grace Becker and David Barr III's new play isn't a complete mess, like Becker's Book of Mercy (presented last fall by Chicago Dramatists). But it's far from ready for prime time.
Two deaf half siblings confined in a Massachusetts insane asylum during reconstruction--Katherine, the daughter of a Confederate general, and Nicholas, his son by a slave--share a mysterious psychic bond. Their savior in the snake pit is fellow inmate Ellenore, a feminist who conveniently understands sign language and whose husband is after her fortune (her dress, in a yellow wallpaper pattern, makes a sly allusion to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic about women's lives and insanity).
Becker and Barr don't seem to know what their central concern is. Is the play about different modes of communication in an oppressive hierarchy? The failings of family life? The cruelty of institutions that use their patients as fodder for research? A subplot involving black minstrels is little more than a device, and the ending is a jarring mix of pat solutions and "so what" revelations. Director Chuck Smith does his best to infuse the proceedings with wit and life, and the performances show flashes of charm and fire. But this play's music and sense remain obscure.