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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Night is a Child
To be sure, the Eastons have quite a bit of healing to do. One year ago, Harriet's third child, Michael, died under the kind of horrible gut wrenchingly violent circumstances that cause his surviving mom and siblings to get recognized by perfect strangers. Leaving an evasive note that says "I'm fine. I'll be in touch," Harriet heads to South America, looking for escape and some kind of understanding. She even encounters her dead son in visions whenever a practitioner of candomble is in the vicinity.
The Night is a Child, the third play by Charles Randolph-Wright to be produced at the Pasadena Playhouse, is in many ways a lovely work with much to recommend it. Handsomely staged by Sheldon Epps, this West Coast premiere boasts fine work by headliner JoBeth Williams and some sweet technical work to evoke a very different land. Musical and mystical, the play may be a little too easy in its resolution and, my goodness, aren't those Brazilians friendly and helpful to a fault. All the same, it's not hard to be swept into the ocean of Harriet's heartache, to hope her journey to Brazil &mdash and back if necessary— will bear fruit.
So out of character is Harriet's disappearance that her children suspect foul play. Take-charge daughter Jane (played by Monette Magrath) positively haunts the local police station, refusing to leave until action is taken. Jane is also the unofficial caretaker for her dissolute brother Brian (Tyler Pierce) whose needs for a ride home from a bar are becoming a bit too routine. Pierce also plays Brian's dead twin brother Michael in vision and flashback.
Splitting the focus almost evenly between Jane and Brian in Massachusetts and their mom is a bit of a risk given how initially trite the kids and their concerns seem to be. There's only so much patience a person can have with the standard "Mom's fine. Leave her alone." and "She's not fine! Something's wrong" back and forth, especially since nobody looking at Williams's put-together Harriet would think she had a dotty bone in her body. We're soon to discover, of course, that mother and children are working out different elements of the same heartache.
Over in Rio, majestically suggested by Yael Pardess's scenery and some window like video projections by Jason H. Thompson, Harriet seems to be doing just fine. The locals are helpful and understanding. Harriet books herself into a hotel run by a plugged-in owner/manager Joel (Maceo Oliver).. On the beach she meets a free spirited doctor, Bia, (Sybyl Walker) who doesn't dress like any HMO practitioner you've ever seen and who encourages Harriet to samba her sorrows away.
Harriet eventually decides that she needs to attend a candomble service to get the final piece for her closure. Neither Bia nor Joel can help her. "This is a religion, not a game," they say. "It is not to be taken lightly." And at about this time, Jane and Brian realize where their mom went and hop a plane to find her.
Williams evokes a nice mixture of blossoming and serenity. Harriet has some jagged edges still, and the actress explores these as well. Williams, who ably reflected the pain and suffering of Laurie Metcalf's character in incarnations of Jane Anderson's The Quality of Life is more than equipped to do this play's heavy lifting herself. When she says she doesn't dance, we believe her. When she dances, we see what finally being able to take those steps has cost her.
Magrath and Pierce were both in the play's world premiere at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. The two actors share a familial push-pull tension that a damaged younger brother and older sister might well have. Their Rio-induced transformation (Brian's in particular) may be perhaps a bit far-fetched, but that's Randolph-Wright's misstep more than his actors'.
Walker's Bia, with her knowing eyes and healing touch and Oliver's kind and wise Joel, are &mdash of course &mdash exactly the kinds of tour guides any traveler would want to encounter whether the terrain is Ipanema or the human heart. The Night is a Child treads both paths with equal finesse.