Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of NIGHT SKY by The Suffield Players (CT)
Through February 27th
As a producer, director, and writer, I’ve worked with everyone from amateurs to icons and legends in the business. As a reviewer, I’ve seen The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and I am not talking about the Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Of course, I am talking about theatre. It’s so refreshing and wonderful when you come across a gem in the rough. It’s like finding an unexpected treasure trove under the boardwalk with a metal detector.
My wife/co-reviewer and I found our most recent treasure trove in a quaint New England community in Suffield, Connecticut amid farmland and private homes. The Suffield Players’ production of Night Sky ranks among one of the best plays I’ve seen, professional or amateur in a very long time.
First, selecting a relatively little known 1991 play such as Night Sky by Susan Yankowitz was a daring choice for a rural community theatre, but then I’ve come to learn that the Suffield Players is about risk-taking and making the impossible possible.
The background of the play’s genesis is worthy of a play of its own. Joseph Chaikin was an actor, director, playwright, and author. He suffered a stroke during open heart surgery which left him with a condition known as aphasia. While my psychology professor-wife knows the details of this condition backwards and forwards, suffice it to say here that it is a speech and language disorder caused by brain damage. Chaikin recovered, but he wanted a play written about the condition and some of what he went through, so he commissioned and inspired his colleague and fellow playwright, Susan Yankowitz, to write what came to be her Night Sky. He gave her three conditions: 1) that the play be about a woman; 2) that the condition arises from an automobile accident rather than a stroke; and 3) that the female protagonist be an astronomer. When asked why an astronomer, Chaikin reportedly replied, “Stars, stars. So many stars.”
Night Sky is a phenomenal play that explores a plethora of issues and operates on so many levels. First, it is a play about a person who suffers brain damage and then literally must start from square one learning to speak and communicate. But the play also explores human relationships in crisis; the role of commitment and support, the role of caregivers (and caregiver burnout); the indomitable human spirit to survive and triumph over disaster (which I learned from the play comes from the Greek word meaning “bad star”). On a deeper level, the play explores Rene Descarte’s mind/body dualism and what Stephen Hawking says are the only two mysteries left: the brain and the cosmos. Ultimately, the play (at least for me) shows that the microcosmic level (i.e. our daily life of living, aging, and dying) is merely a reflection of the cosmic level (stars, like people, are born, age and eventually die). And life goes on.
The Suffield Players have hit a grand slam with this play. Virginia Wolf is wonderful as Anna, the brilliant, internationally known astronomer who must learn to think, speak and communicate after her accident. Ms. Wolf, an articulate actress and radio show host, expertly takes on the devastating effects of aphasia. When I spoke to her after the show and she was back to her articulate self, I had to remind myself that she was only acting – the truth she brought to the character is the mark of real acting. Watching Ms. Wolf’s performance, I was reminded of Harrison’s Ford’s great portrayal of the snarky and pompous attorney in Regarding Henry who must learn to read and write again and, in doing so, finds the real meaning of life.
The rest of the cast also was brilliant. Brian Rucci as Daniel, Anna’s longtime boyfriend and lover perfectly displayed the precarious balance between love and support and caregiver burnout. (As a father of a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, I certainly can relate to caretaking issues.) Veteran actor and magician Dana Ring (which explains his magic in popping a balloon filled with glittery stardust) insightfully played Bill, Anna’s green-eyed colleague. Karen Balaska brought just the right amount of cool professionalism and empathy as Anna’s speech therapist. Shaun O’Keefe was fabulous as another aphasic patient whose progress mirrored Anna’s progress through the play. His comic timing was impeccable. Finally, there was the character of Jennifer, Anna’s teenage daughter played with verve and gusto by young (but experienced) Emery Henderson. She was simply enchanting. I remember seeing Brian Dennehy in a regional production of Bus Stop with John Travolta before he was a star and Rene Auberjonois in BAM’s production of Julius Caesar with Richard Dreyfus before he was a star. Now I can say with confidence that I saw Emery Henderson in a great production of Night Sky before she was a star.
The production was skillfully and creatively directed by experienced director Chris Rohmann. Mr. Rohmann delved into the heart of the play to visually bring it to vibrant life. He even went so far as to discuss certain changes with the playwright due to the logistics of the theatre. Mr. Rohmann wanted a planetarium-like effect, and lighting designer Jerry Zalewski obliged with an incredible lighting effect that even included using special paint which is only visible under ultra violet light.
While the themes and action may appear on the surface to be heavily dramatic and possibly even depressing, nothing can be further from the truth. There is a great deal of humor throughout the play. It also is an engaging and inspiring theatre piece.
My wife and I not only had a chance to meet the director and cast, but most of the staff and crew including Stage Manager Mary Fernandez-Sierra, Sound Technician Ron Balaska and Roger Ochs (who will be directing the Players’ next production of 39 Steps) and technical consultant, Bob Williams, who suffers from aphasia and was able to share his experiences with the actors. It was heartwarming and inspiring to see a group of such creative and talented artists whose collective vision is to bring GREAT theater to their community. This show should not be missed. I cannot wait to come back to see 39 Steps !
What is the mind? Is it simply the work of the brain or is it something more? And if the mind and the brain are connected, how is it so? Is it the mind that makes us who we are? These are the questions that vex philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and even coffeehouse poets. But in truth, no one truly has all the answers – and that is because we humans are an enormously complex species. Lyall Watson, who among other things is a botanist, a zoologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, and an ethologist, is credited as having said, “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” And that alone gives us pause.
The mind – such a mysterious place – the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel. But if the mind and the brain are connected, what happens to one’s mind if something goes awry in the brain? And how might that change the you that is you? The you that you know; the you that others know. Susan Yankowitz’s intelligent, powerful drama Night Sky opens such questions for consideration and dissection. Wayne and I were fortunate to catch this fabulous piece of stage drama, directed by Chris Rohmann, with the Suffield Players at Mapleton Hall. Fitting that this would be their momentous 150th production.
Protagonist Anna (Virginia Wolf), hard-working astronomer, mother, and lover is on overload. With her head literally in the stars she must juggle as many things as the proverbial Cat in the Hat (visualize him standing on the ball with the cake and the rake, the fish and the dish…) She can’t catch a break (or a slice of pizza) after a harrowing day of lecturing and a night’s worth of work ahead. After stressing out over everything from her teenage daughter, Jennifer (Emery Henderson), to a colleague’s interruption (Dana Ring as Bill), it all ultimately culminates in verbal blows with her long-time, live-in, opera-singing boyfriend, Daniel (Brian Rucci). In an effort to blow off steam, she heads out the door but gets into a heinous car accident which results in traumatic left hemisphere brain injury. The damage has rendered her aphasic, or unable to effectively communicate through spoken language. The rest of the story takes us through her frustrating journey of a life disassembled and her efforts to put it back together.
But that’s not all – like the mind, the cosmos are an equally as bewildering and mystifying place – and that starry sky is Anna’s playground. Yankowitz brilliantly melds the two perplexing studies. With metaphors galore, the inaccessible and disjointed words swirling around in Anna’s brain are akin to swirling radiation in the afterglow of the big bang. And is it any surprise that there are 100 billion neurons in the human brain – the same as the 100 billion stars in our galaxy?
Wolf is amazing. She alternately had me laughing and crying – I could identify with the woman she so deftly portrayed and I even leaned to my husband and whispered, “That’s me!” when everyone was at her from different directions, ignoring her own personal needs and pressures to finish her work (btw, Wayne agreed). After the accident, you palpably can feel Anna’s struggle against the aphasia, her intelligence unaffected; but the brilliance within is darkened and dimmed because of her severe communication challenges.
As Anna’s lover, Daniel has his own issues which included feeling shadowed by Anna’s light and later burdened by his caretaking of her. Rucci played off of Wolf so well that you believe their arguments were real – indistinguishable in tone and language from the kinds of spats any couple also could have. But he also was compassionate and loving, and a wonderful father figure to Anna’s daughter.
Henderson as Jennifer is the hot and cold teenager who gives a parent whiplash, pushing Anna to her limits, back and forth between pure exasperation and mother’s undying love. Henderson delivers an incredibly radiant and authentic performance and at just 16, this young lady is going places.
When Anna is in the hospital, her personal fight is paralleled by another aphasic patient, superbly portrayed by Shaun O’Keefe. Yankowitz’s writing will have you in stitches, but it is O’Keefe, who also plays various other roles, whose spot-on delivery provides the main sources of comic relief. His comedic timing and physical presence created countless memorable moments throughout the performance.
Karen Balaska as the speech therapist (who also doubles as various others) provided some of the necessary expository elements, mainly in terms of the medical aspects of Anna’s injury and resulting aphasia, as well as her therapy and progress. Balaska embodies the caring professional, and is a strong and important piece to help us understand the mystifying question of what happens when that unseen something is broken and cannot be completely fixed.
Rohmann skillfully navigated this heavy terrain with a troupe of equally expert performers. He made terrific use of a small space with some novel and unique staging choices (and evidently communicated with the brilliant Yankowitz about making some minor alterations to the script in order to do so). With his staff, he created the beautiful illusion of a planetarium, complete with stars and constellations (a combination of black light-visible, luminescent paint and additional lighting) as well as projections on the stage screen. Kudos to producer Nicole Murray; lighting designer Jerry Zalewski and his crew, Albert LaPlant and Mark Proulx; Rohmann for sound design with Ron Balaska on tech; Jorge Rodriguez for music; Dominique Thiébaut for the French voice-overs; and Konrad Rogowski and Kelly Seip for set design along with their monster crew. And a wonderful shout-out to Bob Williams for consulting through his own personal experiences with aphasia; and Mary Fernandez-Sierra and the rest of the staff for her warm welcome to us, in our first visit to see a Suffield Players production.
This is a warm, engaging, and sharp story about love, loss, and the human condition. And whether one has experienced stroke or other brain injury, knows someone who has, or just loves to truly feel something when attending live theatre – this one is a must see! We cannot wait to see what else this little theatre has in store!