Peggy Sue Dunigan

The Night is a Child

By - Mar 18th, 2008 02:52 pm
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“How can you forget what you don’t understand?” asks Harriet Easton, a middle-aged mother from Boston struggling through endless, sleepless nights. Her insomnia follows the suicide of her son Michael after the tragic event at a city nursery school where he killed his ex-wife and seven other victims. These oppressive night shadows haunt Harriet in the Milwaukee Repertory’s world-premiere presentation of The Night is a Child.

African-American playwright Charles Randolph-Wright attempts to understand the aftermath of Harriet’s personal tragedy as a connection to similar horrific events. He composes a drama that moves with underlying rhythms of music into themes concerning guilt, grief, religion and violence.

In sheer desperation, Harriet Easton travels to her romanticized Rio when she realizes her incapacity to live with these demons any longer. Brazil helps her escape the anniversary of the tragedy and the influence her overbearing two children. In Rio, leaving Boston behind, Harriet discovers beautiful beaches, potent drinks and the Brazilian Samba as her mysterious friend Bia escorts Harriet through her nightmares to find dreams of peace.

Still home in Boston, her two children – Jane, the successful type-A lawyer, and Brian, Michael’s alcoholic twin – suffer their own sleepless nights worrying about their mother’s whereabouts and pondering unanswered questions about the death of the brother they loved, the constant media coverage of the tragedy and the infamous notoriety that brings. As they seek to rescue Harriet, Jane and Brian save not only their mother but also themselves. As Bia tells them, “Sometimes what we find inside ourselves is more dangerous than outside.”

Randolph-Wright asks the audience to see the samba as a metaphor for “letting go” of these unanswerable questions in life. But this metaphorical tension builds slowly as the action shifts between Boston and Brazil in the first act. Humorous notes in the script soften the disturbing subjects as the second act takes us further into these dilemmas. Yet there might be might be too many chords to hear as Randolph-Wright tries to synthesize popular music together with the drama of Harriet’s self-healing.

Still, the excellent acting of Elizabeth Norment as Harriet and Lanise Antione Shelley as Bia creates an atmosphere on stage allowing all these themes to harmonize and their tenuous relationship to transcend two disparate cultures. Monette Magrath’s Jane and Tyler Pierce’s Brian capture sibling rivalry adequately. But these characters stand on a visually blank stage, minimal in design, with the richness of the Brazilian culture missing. Even the clothing Harriet wears never changes as she transforms her sleepless nights into rational survival. Throughout this bare two hours, there is more character and emotion, even through the customs of Brazil, to be explored.

Charles Randolph-Wright creates an evening that asks many questions with few answers. Along with Harriet, the audience would like to believe fleeing to Brazil and embracing a fresh cultural context might offer permanent relief from life’s tragedies. But as she learns to Samba, to dance on the edge of Boston’s Charles River, that question remains. How does one deal with the residual sadness and pure pain her family and society faces with the existence of senseless violence? Randolph-Wright’s evocative Brazilian nights, very imaginative and young in The Rep’s performance of The Night is a Child, offers one optimistic solution to understanding and overcoming the devastating fears surrounding these incomprehensible terrors. VS

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater continues with the world premiere of The Night is a Child until April 13. For information and tickets call 414.224.9490 or visit the Rep online.

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