By Pauline Adamek
Beautifully staged and performed, Charles Randolph-Wright’s play “The Night is A Child” is a heart-wrenching examination of loss and coping with grief that is currently being staged at the Pasadena Playhouse.
JoBeth Williams stars as Harriet, an emotionally crippled mother who remains haunted by a family tragedy. As the first anniversary of the horrific event approaches, she flees her two grown children, as well as their collective and claustrophobic hometown of Brookline in Boston, to realize her life-long dream of visiting Brazil. But once in the sparkling city of Rio de Janeiro, Harriet finds she must confront the inescapable ghosts of her past and find a way to move forward through forgiveness.
Sheldon Epps directs the drama with a sure hand. The mostly bare and abstract blue and white set employs scrims and screens hung upstage to great effect. Projected on the screens, from time to time, are scenes of moving clouds or the lazy reflection of water. Epps uses the screens to instantly identify the mood and location of the scene. So, when we switch from the chilly, wintry imagery of Boston to the warm and summery beach setting of Rio, the stark contrast between the two locales emphasizes Harriet’s escape.
The first person Harriet encounters in Brazil is a vivacious local woman named Bia (wonderfully played by Sybyl Walker) who extols the love affair she has with her own hometown. It is Bia who convinces Harriet to move to a beachside hotel owned by her estranged brother, situated on the famously sexy and ritzy Ipanema coastline. Bia also reluctantly helps Harriet pursue an interest in the local black magic, or “voodoo” culture, known as “Macumba.”
Meanwhile, back in Boston, Harriet’s children are distraught. Harriet’s daughter Jane (Monette Magrath) is especially panicky about her mother’s disappearance, while her son Brian (Tyler Pierce) is curiously hostile, preferring to seek refuge at the bottom of a bottle of strong alcohol. We soon learn he has compelling reasons for this behavior.
During the first half of the evening, the story chops back and forth from the two locations. At times, some of these scenes are way too brief, but gradually a kaleidoscopic picture assembled from these short scenes starts to take shape. Then, during the second half of the evening, once Harriet’s children figure out where they might find her, the play finds a more compelling and emotionally engrossing rhythm.
Also, early in the play the mood is a bit too cute and far too reminiscent of the classic play “Shirley Valentine,” in which a middle-aged British woman escapes to Greece and embraces a new lease on life. But once the revelations of “The Night Is a Child” unfold during the second half, including a sucker-punch that caught this reviewer completely by surprise, all comparisons drift away.
Combining fantasy and gut-wrenching realism, and infused with the captivating Samba rhythms and spicy melodies of Brazilian music, Charles Randolph-Wright’s glorious new drama takes us on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and compassion.
Cast: JoBeth Williams, Monette Magrath, Armando McClain, Maceo Oliver, Tyler Pierce and Sybyl Walker
Director: Sheldon Epps
The Pasadena Playhouse.
39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
Showing until October 4th, 2009; Tickets range from $32.00 – $67.00.
Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
[Pauline Adamek is a Hollywood-based film, theater and food critic whose site www.artsbeatla.com is the go-to Los Angeles website for all the arts happening around town. She also files for FilmInk Australia, the LA Daily News and the Sun Community Newspapers.]
Photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy the Pasadena Playhouse.