pat’s review

September 21, 2008

From the Diva of Drama, Pat Launer:



By Pat Launer


 The Night Sky is dark and big:
No Exit for a Good Body – or a Fat Pig.


THE SHOW: Night Sky, the 1990 drama by New York playwright/novelist/librettist Susan Yankowitz, whose provocative works, A Knife in the Heart, Phaedra in Delirium ,Terminal  and Foreign Bodies, have been seen in San Diego. This is the first production of the first small theater residence at La Jolla Playhouse; Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company was a wise first choice, as they are masterful at attracting new audiences. In this case, they partnered with the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation, which helped to sell out the run almost before it began.  

THE BACKSTORY: Yankowitz was a long-time collaborator of legendary theatermaker Joseph Chaikin. When Chaikin had a stroke during his third open-heart surgery, he became aphasic, losing his ability to string words together. When I met and interviewed him some years ago (he died in 2003), having worked with many aphasics in my prior career, I was struck by his ability to be profound and articulate even when reduced to single-word utterances. Most folks in that state merely deal with the day-to-day minutia. But Chaikin had an amazing ability to be both philosophical comprehensible. At some point, he asked Yankowitz to write a play about aphasia, with a female astronomer at its centter. Yankowitz obliged, and Chaikin directed the first production. 

THE STORY: Anna is a brilliant, fast-talking, self-absorbed astronomer. After an argument with her pre-teen daughter and another with her boyfriend, an aspiring but as-yet unsuccessful opera singer, she slams out of the house and gets hit by a car. The accident results in aphasia, a loss of speech and language due to brain injury. The mysteries of the mind are juxtaposed with the mysteries of the universe; both are filled with black holes. Anna struggles to regain the most human of all traits: communication. Her extreme frustration is only matched or exceeded by that of her family. Her colleague, who takes over her college courses, represents those who can view the sky, but not the folks down below; he avoids seeing her for a long time after the accident. Sarah is both indomitable and incorrigible. And all she wants to do is present her paper at a major international astronomy conference. 

The play has beautiful language and images; multiple references to stars, skies, understanding and communication foreshadow the disaster to come. Yankowitz paints a deeply felt, realistic portrait of the fears and disappointments inherent in the painfully slow process of regaining speech and language skills. The astronomy information, dispensed as class lectures, is a tad more simplistic, but Yankowitz uses it effectively to make her cosmic points.  

THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The production superbly supports the play; like Anna’s speech, it’s stripped down to the bare essentials. David F. Weiner put stairways on the ground and ‘stars’ in the heavens (above the playing space and the audience). A little perilous, but very effective, and skillfully lit by Jason Bieber. Jeannie Galioto’s costumes look fine. And director Siobhan Sullivan brings texture and nuance to the piece. 

Adorable Bibi Valderrama, age 11, is convincing (if a tad young) as Jennifer, a pouty pre-adolescent who’s had it with her mother’s self-involvement even before the accident. Justin Snavely is the other astronomer, giving us rock-bottom basic lectures that provide background and analogues. His awkwardness when he finally does visit Anna is extremely well played. Nicole Gabriella Scipione plays a variety of women, both tough and tender — doctors, therapists and others who help (or hinder) Anna’s relentless quest for perfection (though she’s forced to settle for improvement). Along with Brian Mackey, who portrays a patient with a different type of aphasia (more fluent), they form a kind of Greek chorus, not as much commenting on the action as representing the views and opinions of the community. Mackey’s annoyance with the infantile literature he’s forced to read provides another poignant moment in the drama.  (Pictured: Bibi and Pat – Photo Randy Rovang)

Tom Andrew is marvelous as the loving, faithful but guilty boyfriend, trying to hold onto his hat (and his relationship and sanity) on the emotional rollercoaster ride of this trying journey. But ultimately, the piece belongs to Seema Sueko. Though she’s not wholly credible as the accomplished, hyperverbal astronomer at the outset, her struggles to communicate are gut-wrenching, the contortions of her face and the flailing of her hands painful to watch. It’s a commanding performance, that teaches us a lot, and in the process, breaks our hearts. 

THE LOCATION: The Mandell Weiss Forum Studio Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, through September 21


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