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A CurtainUp Review
Only a few hours before the accident, we see Anna lecturing to her students about the splendors and mysteries of the cosmos. An overachiever, she is dedicated to her work and her students. Her career defines her. She is alive with energy and infuses her listeners with enthusiasm. She is articulate and communicative, young, trim, attractive— in the prime of her '40s and looking forward to an important paper she is invited to deliver in several months before a prestigious conference in Paris.
Returning home after teaching, she wants to deal with an unexpected writing deadline, but life interferes. Daniel, her fiancé, needs her support with his own opera career, her daughter Jennifer has a litany of teenage problems, there is no supper and Anna forgot she is expecting a colleague's visit. Obviously, there is plenty of self-involvement to go around. Anna is used to having everyone accommodate her needs, so she dispenses encouraging words to Daniel, lightly sends Jennifer off to study French, grabs an apple, and settles down with her computer. Constant interruptions, however, lead to an argument. She grabs her car keys and leaves. Suddenly, blinding lights, shattering glass, crashing sounds. This scene, and this part of her life, is over.
Anna wakes up bandaged in a hospital. She is disabled on her right side, confused, and facing the debilitating condition called aphasia. This is heavyweight stuff, but there is more.
Author and physicist Stephen Hawking, also an aphasic, has written of the two remaining mysteries—the brain and the cosmos. Ironically, Anna, the play's linchpin, has spent her professional life studying and explaining the mysteries of the universe. With the damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, the language center leaves the victim lost within her own black universe. Darkness has invaded the part of her brain that communicates. Anna's mind is intact but her speech is disjointed, a both horrifying and funny jumble. The words she blurts out are all wrong to her and to the listener. Frustration and fear overwhelm her.
Anna lives with a man who loves her and a teenage daughter who needs her, so her battle draws them in as well. How do they communicate with her? How do they learn to listen? Most importantly, while aphasia is apparently often reversible, when will Anna regain everything she once had? When will she be herself? Will she ever?
With fierce concentration she powers through her healing process — tackling therapy, focused on recovery, demanding that everyone find new ways to communicate and listen. How she eventually comes to an accommodation with her condition and her work is the crux of the play.
Last seen on Broadway in Three Tall Women, Jordan Baker's empathetic portrayal of Anna's complexity is persuasive. She is masterful and focused, presenting a situation one hopes never to experience. Even helpless and dependent, Anna firmly retains her position as the sun in her own universe and demands patience and attentiveness from everyone, none more so than herself.
Daniel (Jim Stanek) and Jennifer (Ashley Carter) convincingly battle their difficulties, supportive and encouraging while trying to cope with their own lives. Slowly they discover personal ways to enter Anna's life and bring her back into theirs. Danieldiscovers that his music offers its own surprising therapy for her. Jennifer, comes to realize that even her high school music and over-dramatized dilemmas connect with Anna. They both display strong swings of impatience, deep love, and individual strengths. These characters are compellingly drawn with color and life.
Less vivid is Tuck Milligan as Bill, a colleague who avoids visiting Anna in the hospital. With the subtle agenda of undermining Anna's position, he is written as a charismatic teacher, but he never comes across as a contender in her league. Maria-Christina Oliveras plays various roles, principally a speech therapist who explains exactly what is happening to Anna, and what is not. Dan Domingues also portrays several roles, his most important being a patient who brings another human aspect to aphasia.
The apartment, classroom, hospital and conference hall scenes are fluidly set up with minimal props that move in and out with ease. Cameron Anderson's imaginative set design is especially effective with the backdrop, its colors mirroring Anna through her journey. Two large panels are painted with broad strokes of orange and yellow. They slide apart as needed to display a center projection of gray clouds. With lighting by Peter West, this highlights Anna's alternating moods of hope and despair, and at the end, the backdrop of the open sky glows with the shining triumph she has wrested from her ordeal.
Except for her hospital garb, Anna always wears a matching shirt and long sweater set in different colors. Daniel gave her beads that broke apart in her accident, but at the end she is wearing them again, an interesting link back to their relationship. She is contemporary and business-like but not dowdy, just as Jennifer's hip clothes are totally in for high school.
Director Daniella Topol steers the story through short scenes that often provoke laughter through the tears. The production is forceful through the first act when Anna returns home to face the dizzying confusion of the outside world. Act II moves with fits and starts, overwhelmed with details of Jennifer's prom, Daniel's career, therapy, friendly advice, and recurring frustration. Anna's feverish determination to be ready for the Paris conference seems insurmountable as she stumbles through her struggle, words tumbling out incomprehensibly, like "elephants on tongue,"" before she fights again to restate her intentions. With the abrupt scenes and details, the emotional connection is sometimes loosened.
Susan Yankowitz was inspired to write Night Sky by Joseph Chaikin, playwright and founder of the Open Theatre who was himself affected with aphasia following a stroke in 1984. Having recovered sufficiently to continue writing, directing and performing until his death in 2003, Chaikin commissioned Yankowitz to write Night Sky and she dedicates the play to his memory.
Acknowledgement again to Jordan Baker for her vivid and concentrated portrayal of Anna. Witnessing some powerful segments of her ordeal, we catch a glimpse of the terrifying Night Sky in an afflicted brain and to those in its universe.