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The Night Is a Child

JoBeth Williams leads a first-rate cast in Charles Randolph-Wright's haunting drama about a troubled family.

JoBeth Williams and Sybyl Walker in The Night Is a Child
(© Craig Schwartz)
Although it's not billed as a ghost story, the spirits of the dead are everywhere in Charles Randolph-Wright's latest play, The Night Is a Child, now at the Pasadena Playhouse under Sheldon Epps' direction. And instead of a haunted house, there are three very haunted lives in this story of how one young man's incomprehensible act of violence reverberates in the lives of his mother and siblings, and destroying -- in a deeply personal and organic way -- the very core of who they are.

JoBeth Williams gives a stirring performance as Harriet, the mother who cannot comprehend what motivated her gentle son, Michael, to commit mass murder before taking his own life. Her struggle leads her to impulsively escape the tattered security of her Boston home for the easy, breezy freedom of Brazil, a place she's longed to visit since she was 16 years old and fell in love with the music of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66.

As Harriet strolls down a beach in Impanema, she meets an enigmatic young woman named Bia (the thoroughly delightful Sybyl Walker, resplendent in beautiful and colorful native attire by costume designer Maggie Morgan), who directs her to a local hotel where she is befriended by the owner, Joel (an engaging Maceo Oliver). Later, Harriet returns to the beach and happens upon a couple of men performing a mysterious voodoo ritual. As the men chant and dance, Harriet sees the spirit of Michael (Tyler Pierce), who appears as the sweet-natured teenager who once helped her to learn basic Portuguese.

Back in Boston, Harriet's high-strung daughter, Jane (Monette Magrath) is frantic with worry over her mother's sudden disappearance, while Michael's twin, Brian (Pierce again, in a convincingly different persona), deals with the situation like he's been dealing with life since the murders happened a year ago --by getting rip-roaringly drunk. Ever the take-charge rescuer, Jane picks up her brother from the bar and then, having realized where her mother has likely gone, books them on a flight to Brazil, and even arranges for a local man named Henrique (Armando McClain) to help with the search.

Projections designed by Jason H. Thompson appear on two upstage screens and keep us easily grounded in location, time and culture, as does Lap Chi Chu's evocative lighting. Yael Pardess' simple but effective set includes a pair of wide, shallow pits used for indoor locations like the hotel, while the level floor space sets up outdoor environments such as the beach, etc. Both pits and screens are used to wonderful comic effect in an Act II scene with Bia and Harriet in a speeding taxi on the way to a candomble (voodoo) service, while Jane, Brian, and Henrique zip madly along in another taxi headed to Harriet's hotel.

Randolph-Wright's script holds firmly to the perspectives of Harriet, Jane, and Brian as they try to recalibrate their lives in a horrifically redefined world. Jane fears that her own two sons will turn into Michael; Brian rages at being seen as the ghost of his dead identical twin and his loss of all individual sense of self; and Harriet experiences guilt at not seeing whatever troubles Michael kept hidden that ultimately led him to kill. All we see of Michael is how he was seen by others, not how he saw his life or himself. Understanding may remain elusive, but release finally becomes possible -- both for the living and the spirits of the dead.


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