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Night Sky

Jordan Baker gives a heartbreaking performance in Susan Yankowitz's well-meaning play about aphasia.

Dan Domingues, Jordan Baker, and Jim Stanek in Night Sky
(© Carol Rosegg)
There are so many direct and metaphorically indirect references to interior and exterior space in Susan Yankowitz's Night Sky, now premiering at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, that even the ties worn by one character serve as reminders of the heady subject matter: aphasia. Yes, one cravat that costumer Katherine Roth has supplied features a blazing-constellation pattern, another has a field of what look to be aligned planets, and a third boasts a field of shooting stars. But no amount of myriad verbal and visual inclusions can make this well-meaning work better than it actually is.

Without question, Yankowitz taps into several deeply touching moments as she relates the plight that obviously brilliant astronomer Anna (Jordan Baker) finds herself in as she recovers from an accident and slowly regains the ability to express herself, while also reconnecting with her daughter Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter), her younger live-in lover Daniel (Jim Stanek), and her teaching colleague Bill (Tuck Milligan). The most effective of these scenes depict Anna and Daniel working through relationship problems compounded by their new battle. Other sequences that tug at the heart revolve around Anna's attempt to find words in time to deliver a paper she's written for an important Paris conference.

Unfortunately, these stretches insufficiently offset the overall impression that the play (which first debuted in 1991) is now best appreciated as a guide for families dealing with an aphasia-afflicted member. Furthermore, some of the dramaturgy -- including the Anna-Daniel argument that sends her racing out of the house into the path of an on-coming car -- is afternoon-special-creaky. Moreover, in her understandable eagerness to cover every aspect of a sufferer's dilemma, Yankowitz inserts ironic comments like Anna's declaring "I'm speechless" in one of the attenuated opening scenes. Also, she sees to it that other characters have their moments of temporary aphasia. At one point, Yankowitz even has another aphasic patient (Dan Domingues) reading from Chicken Little at the moment when Henny Penny decides the sky is falling.

Still, the play's inherent problems are strongly offset by the successful efforts put into the proceedings by director Daniella Topol and the cast of six, each of them clearly sensitive to the gravity of the business at hand. The toughest assignment belongs to Baker, who faces the difficulties of impersonating a woman deprived of coherent speech and surmounts them all. The heartbreak of Anna's sudden catapult into disorientation is fully realized, and so is her slow acceptance of -- and even triumph over -- her new challenge.

The rest of the ensemble members support Baker in polished style, not the least of them Stanek as the short-tempered, yet abiding Daniel and Carter as a typical contemporary teen intent on getting a tattoo but also sympathetic to her mother's plight. Special mention must also be given to Domingues for his doubling chores and Maria-Christina Oliveras for hers, most especially as an authoritative speech therapist.