another review

September 16, 2008

San Diego Jewish World

Night Sky audience experiences aphasia                                 

By Carol Davis

LA JOLLA, California—When Susan Yankowitz was 12 she won a writing competition in a weekly Jewish news publication in her hometown of Newark, N.J. The article that talked about prejudice won her a $10.00 note. She still has it pasted in a scrapbook as a reminder. Yankowitz is a well-known playwright, lyricist and novelist who graduated Sarah Lawrence College and Yale School of Drama. As a member of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre Group she authored Night Sky which was first produced in 1991 and directed by Chaikin. It has been produced all over the world and translated into five languages including Hebrew.  (Lehigh U. Story)

Four years ago Seema Sueko formed Mo’Olelo (it means story) Performing Arts Company. Seema, whose talents embrace acting, directing, producing, writing as well as co founding the company that is now mounting Yankowitz’s play, Night Sky directed by Siobhan Sullivan. It is at the La Jolla Playhouse in the inaugural season of the Playhouses Resident Theatre Company Program in The Studio Theatre (a little black box space in back of the Mandell Weiss Forum) and is one force to be reckoned with.

Seema’s company’s mission is to ‘create new theatrical works based on research within various communities… to broaden the scope of San Diego’s cultural environment by producing professional, socially conscious theatre and innovative arts education programs that provide greater representation of diverse voices, aesthetics and issues on stage…Past productions include A Piece of my Heart and The Adoption Project: Triad

When artistic director, Chris Ashley, of the La Jolla Playhouse launched this new initiative of providing a temporary home to theatre companies without permanent homes, Mo’Olelo’s mission and past productions were a perfect fit for it to be the first company to be chosen for the job. Her company was one of nine applicants from local groups who had applied for this opportunity. It’s a good match and the year’s residency will benefit both theatres.

In many productions, Seema makes her audiences think, feel and get involved. Night Sky is no exception. Dedicated to board member Elaine Hiel’s late husband Joe, who suffered from a stroke in his forties and loved words and the theatre, Night Sky is a perfect vehicle to force audiences to see how fragile the brain is and to understand that just because someone can’t articulate doesn’t mean they are stupid.  

The main character in Yankowitz’s play, Anna, (Seema) also suffered severe brain injuries due to an automobile accident, and became aphasic. She too was very verbal in her own work, spoke with brilliance and clarity and understood to the nth degree the order of the universe.

Yankowitz’s play reaches out not only to adults who suffered from strokes but anyone suffering from damage to the brain from head injuries, complications at birth and especially to the hundreds of young soldiers and their families who have and will be returning home with serious brain injuries.

How we deal with that and exactly what it looks like, is tackled in Night Sky and while scenes and images get tangled, crossed and mix, one has an idea of what Anna’s mind and thought process might be going through at the same time.

No easy task, this, but Night Sky is an important piece that needs to be seen, flaws and all. The play opens with Anna (Sueko) a brilliant astronomy professor who delights in her lectures and is not shy about sharing her knowledge to her college students. There is no question she is revered in her community and by her colleagues. She is preparing an important paper for an upcoming astronomy seminar at which she plans to attend present her thesis.

At home however, things aren’t as rosy. Her long time live in, Daniel, (Tom Andrew) is an opera singer down on his luck and her teenage daughter Jennifer (Bibi Valderrama) is well, a teenager with all the baggage that goes along with being a teenager. When Anna returns home from her regular class session all appears well, happy, lovey-dovey, but the cracks begin to show early on and in a fit of temper, Anna rushes out of the house to escape the discordant (unlike her universe) and noisy atmosphere at home.

Headlights glaring! Darkness! And then we hear the horrific crash (Paul Peterson, sound design and Jason Bieber, lighting)) of an automobile.

Life as Anna and her family knew it would never be the same. When Anna wakes in the hospital and begins her slow recovery, she finds that words, her most precious asset come out of her mouth in a mumbo jumbo disorganized stream of consciousness quite different from the astrological and neat world of her own center. While the words are there, they have trouble organizing into a cohesive collection.

Anna is suffering from damage to the brain clinically referred to as aphasia. (a-pha-sia n the partial or total inability to produce and understand speech as a result of brain damage caused by injury or disease).

Anna’s life and those around her go from order to disorder as fast as a shooting star descends the heavens. In the scenes that follow the audience is taken through all the phases of whatever recovery Anna may make. Those include not only her pain and agony of watching her family come to grips with the fact that the center of their world is now spinning out of control, but struggling to face her own limitations as well. 

It also means that the two most important people, the two whose spheres revolved around her in the past are now her life support. Her window to the outside depends on their recovery and understanding as well.  To say that that puts enormous strain on an already fragile family is an understatement.

Outstanding in his portrayal of Daniel, Anna’s true love, Tom Andrew gives a most compelling performance going from brow beaten loser of a breadwinner to outrage. He finds himself unable to cope with the job of being Anna’s words as well as her cheerleader and healer. While I’m no expert on this subject, Andrew’s role proved to be most telling about the frustrations and agony family members must go through; keeping a stiff upper lip while feeling inadequate in coming to grips with the magnitude of the situation. He does that with a free range of emotions most believable in all situations put to him. 

Bibi Valderrama as Anna’s daughter Jennifer, comes on strong as the spoiled teenager while still showing vulnerability as she copes with both her mother’s disability and her coming of age, first dates and how to act at a school dance she doesn’t really want to attend. She’s too young (11) for the part, but does show signs of that teenage attitude so many of us have lived through without having to deal with aphasia!

As Anna, Seema walks a fine line between coming on as too loud and overbearing She is a powerful woman astronomer, head of household and center of her own universe who clearly doesn’t have enough time in her life to sincerely give a damn about anyone else’s life but her own, to being able to finally agree to getting help from the strength and backbone of her family.

This is something she would never consider in the past and is a monumental breakthrough for everyone. Now she has all the time, after her therapy treatments to actually listen and learn from Daniel and Jennifer in a way she never had before the accident.

It’s a touching revelation that softens Anna (Seema) and makes her more real. As a talented and committed actor Seema slowly discloses the other side of Anna. She also convinces that underneath all the bravado of a brilliant career woman is the vulnerability and strength of a woman who, even though she cannot communicate as she once had, has the willingness and determination to learn all over again. It’s a touching and compelling moment.

Excellent support comes from Nicole Gabriella Scipione as the therapist and other women. It is through her explanations, as a medical expert, to the audience in describing what happens to the injured brain that we learn about aphasia. Brian Makey is another aphasic patient in the learning process of reading again and Justin Snavely is Bill, Anna’s colleague who might know a lot about astronomy but doesn’t get Anna’s illness.

Both the Playhouse and Mo’Olelo are to be congratulated for this joint effort.

Night Sky will continue through Sept. 21st. See you at the theatre.


One Response to “another review”

  1. Aisha Says:

    Congratulations to you all.

    I wish I could fly over to see the play.

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