Samba Your Way To Redemption

When we think of horrific events like Columbine, where someone snaps and kills a number of people and then kills themselves, we often think of the families of the victims of the initial attack. We never think about the family of the shooter. Exploring this aspect of the aftermath of a horrific crime is the subject of Charles Randolph-Wright’s latest play, “The Night is a Child”, which we saw last night at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The Night is a Child” tells the story of the Easton family in the aftermath of a horrific event. The primary focus is on the matriarch of the family, Harriet Easton (JoBeth Williamsæ), whose son, Michael, committed such a horrific crime. It also explores the aftermath of the incident on Michael’s siblings: his twin Brian Easton (Tyler Pierceæ, who also plays Michael) and his older sister Jane Easton-Whitcomb (Monette Magrathæ). What did Michael do? We don’t start to find out until the end of the first act, so perhaps I won’t tell you yet.

When the play opens, we find Harriet seemingly on a dream vacation to Rio De Janero, Brazil, a place she has always wanted to visit after being inspired by the samba-like stylings of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. Bia (Sybyl Walkeræ), a local woman she sees on the beach recommends that she change hotels to one in Ipanema, which she does. Meanwhile, we learn that back in Boston, her family (Jane and Brian) are frantically searching for her… while dealing with the recognition they face as the siblings of Michael Easton. As the action switches back and forth between Brazil and Boston, we learn more about these people and the nature of Michael’s crime. In Boston, we learn how Jane and Brian have been coping with the incident: Brian has become a full-on alcoholic, drinking to forget, and Jane has claimed to compartmenalize the issue, burying away any thoughts of her brother. In Brazil the story plays out in a different way. Bia has urged Harriet to a particular hotel, where the manager, Joel (Maceo Oliveræ) finds her a room. Both Bia and Joel attempt to encourage Harriet to let loose, to samba, to free herself from whatever tormets her, and live carefree the Brazilian way. But Harriet is increasingly drawn to visions of Michael that talk to her, seemingly brought on whenever a group of candomble (Brazilian voodoo) priests pass by on the beach. By the end of the first act, Brian and Jane have discovered their mother is in Brazil, and Harriet has decided she must visit a candomble ceremony to talk to Michael and to learn why he did what he did: going into a preschool in their neighborhood and methodically shooting the teachers, each child, his ex-wife, and then himself.

In the second act, we see Jane and Brian in Brazil, learning about the country from Henrique (Armando McClain). We also see Harriet visiting the candomble ceremony… and the post-ceremony aftermath where she runs into Jane and Brian. We don’t find the answer to “Why?”, but we do see how Brazil leads to the redemption and recovery of the Easton family. This occurs as we learn more of Bia’s secrets, including that she studied in Boston to be a doctor, and her brother (who turns out to be Joel) never let her go from being his little sister. I won’t spoil all her secrets, other than to note that by the end of the play, the Easton family has let go of any guilt they may have had regarding Michael, and are hopefully moving on to better lives.

The way this story is told makes the second act critical. During the first act, as things switch back and forth, I found myself getting confused as to who Michael was and why it affected his family so. Even by the end of the first act, when you learn of the attack, you just know that some form of redemption will occur (because the dramatic nature of the play demands that character growth). You can’t see how it will fully happen. The second act brings it all together. The redemption occurs, and the unanticipated twists and turns make the ride worthwhile.

This play is unlike Randolph-Wright’s previous plays that we have seen at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Blue” and “Cuttin’ Up”, which explored aspects of the African-American experience. This play was more a commentary on the stereotypes regarding racial minorities in the United States. There’s a point where Bia and Harriet are discussing her experiences in Boston, and how Bia was always viewed as someone’s maid, as opposed to a medical student. Bia also comments on the fact that all the attention in America is seemingly on the crimes of the ghetto, but that the horrific criminals — the ones that snap and do these shooting crimes — often come from the privileged neighborhoods and the best homes. These are significant aspects of the stereotyping of the African-American experience, to be sure, but are not the main commentary of the play.

The play was extremely well acted by the entire ensemble. JoBeth Williams did a wonderful job of portraying the initially confused Harriet in love with Brazil, being confused by her visions of Michael, who was repressed and couldn’t let go. Monette Magrath played uptight very well, which made her relaxing and coming loose on the Ipanema beach even more of a surprise. Tyler Pierce captured Brian’s drunken stupor very well, and also showed some remarkable insights in his recovery. On the Brazilian side, Sybyl Walker embodied Bia’s freedom and joy and spirit and love, while Maceo Oliver was the model of the Brazilian host. All the cast seemed to be having fun with the roles and the commentaries they were making.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

The production was directed by Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Playhouse. This direction was the subject of some scrutiny, for as it is common to have black director direct plays about the black experience to gain authenticity, this was a black director focusing on the white experience. This resulted in an article in the LA Times exploring whether black directors should direct white plays. I’m pleased to say that Sheldon did an excellent job on this production, building the characters well and letting us see the author’s words echoed in the movement and nuances of the action.

Turning to the technical side, the scenic design by Yael Pardess was simple, consisting of plain backdrops and a few benches. The sets were really constructed through the lighting design of Lap Chi Chu and the projection design of Jason H. Thompson. The latter was the star of the scenery, using images to establish the locale of each scene. It was, however, also the source of one of my complaints about the program: the fan on the projector was loud, distracting from the action on the stage and making the theatre far too warm. Maggie Morgan costumed the characters well, with clothing selections that echoed the character’s personality: Harriet frumpy and a bit stuck in the past; Jane uptight; Brian sloppy; Bia carefree and joyous; and Joel relaxed and calm. This was echoed in the movement of the characters as well, likely due to the work of Doriana Sanchez as movement consultant. The various dialects from dialect coach Joel Goldes were satisfactory: the Brazilian dialects were much stronger than the Boston ones. Casting was by Michael Donovan. The projection was under the stage management of Jill Gold, assisted by Hethyr Verhoef.

The Night is a Child” continues at the Pasadena Playhouse through September 27.

Upcoming Theatre: We’re in the last quarter of the year, and we’re coming down the home stretch for 2009 theatre. Next Saturday night we’re seeing “Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of the Baskervilles” at REP East Playhouse. That will be followed on Monday 10/5 with the next installment of “Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds” (Episode 3: Marie Antoinette, Karl Marx, U.S. Grant, and Thomas More) at the Steve Allen Theatre (ticket info). No theatre is currently scheduled for the weekend of 10/10, but I’m open to suggestions. Sunday 10/18 we’re seeing the Donmar workshop version of “Parade” at the Mark Taper Forum, and the month of October closes with “Guys and Dolls” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. Halloween weekend is currently open. The following weekend is currently blocked off for “A Day Out With Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum. The following weekend Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. The weekend of 11/21 I’m holding open for “M*A*S*H” at REP East Playhouse, although I haven’t confirmed the particulars with Mikee yet. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taking by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse), due to the fact I head out on 12/6 for ACSAC in Hawaii. The rest of December is currently open, but I know that sometime in December I’ll be attempting to ticket “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson. There will also likely be additional episodes of “Meeting of Minds”. As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.