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Theater review: 'The Night Is a Child' at Pasadena Playhouse

September 6, 2009 |  3:50 pm

Night is a Child

Two very different women meet on a Rio de Janeiro beach: Harriet (JoBeth Williams), a WASP homemaker from Massachusetts, and Bia (Sybyl Walker), a free-spirited, samba-loving doctor from Brazil. But both carry a wrenching secret in Charles Randolph-Wright’s “The Night is a Child,” an affecting if underdeveloped study in grief and renewal now at Pasadena Playhouse.

Harriet is facing a shocking anniversary. A year ago, her son, Michael (Tyler Pierce), committed a horrific crime, and the family — including uptight daughter Jane (Monette Magrath) and Michael’s alcoholic twin, Brian (also Pierce) — still lives under the shadow of his atrocity. They can’t go anywhere in their Brookline neighborhood without receiving stares and silent accusations. So Harriet, long captivated by the sway of bossa nova, escapes to Brazil.

One of “Night”’s effective ironies is to show how suburban Harriet feels unsafe in a country that views the U.S. as the truly dangerous nation. But personal transformation, not gun violence, is the play’s real theme. “Night,” while genuinely felt, is also a familiar entry in the unattached-female-awakening-by-passport genre: think “Educating Rita,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and “Eat Pray Love.” 

“Night” is essentially “Flee Pray Samba”: Harriet wants to attend a candomblé ceremony, convinced that the Afro-Brazilian religion’s rites of spiritual cleansing will free her soul. That quest gives “Night”

its narrative motor and hint of mystery, even if we never quite get a sense of being in Rio. Yael Pardess’ elegant set, a series of video screens hanging in space, reflects the play’s minimalist style, though the projected images can feel like a travel brochure instead of theater.

Night is a Child2 Randolph-Wright is a keen observer of social mores, from the haute black bourgeois world of “Blue” to the barber shop communities of “Cuttin’ Up.” Raised in South Carolina, this playwright-director wryly delineates lines of comportment; he’s interested in how people mind — in every sense -- their manners. But here his penchant for the sharply drawn silhouette limits the depth of the material. The playwright tends to end a scene just when it starts to gather steam, and can connect his narrative dots too directly. (Harriet tells Bia that Brian is her “wild child;” cut to Brian in a cab from the airport, talking excitedly about how much he wants to explore Rio.) The material rarely pushes against expectations, apart from an effective twist in Act II.

Director Sheldon Epps directs his ensemble with characteristic grace and flow. Williams has often played the next-door beauty who possesses more grit than meets the eye (who can ever forget Williams dragging her daughter out from the maw of a demonic television in “Poltergeist”?). Here she is open and immensely likeable, particularly appealing in her tougher, unsentimental moments.

Magrath and Pierce, reprising roles from the play’s premiere in Milwaukee, create a funny, credible sibling bond; Pierce reveals Brian’s torment without lapsing into melodrama. Walker, resplendent in costume designer Maggie Morgan’s tie-dye maxi dresses, plays Bia with exuberant directness, while Maceo Oliver and Armando McClain exude South American allure in their smaller roles. 

Harriet alludes to having missed out on the big social movements of the '60s and '70s due to an early marriage and children, but we never learn how much regret she actually feels. Her story in the play is circumscribed by a child’s murderous act: this gives the play focus, but not the scope it needs to make Harriet as compelling as she could be.

“Night” is finally a love letter to Brazil, with its easy sensuality and complex legacy of slavery. One of Harriet’s favorite bossa nova songs offers the refrain: “Sadness never ends/Happiness does.” That bittersweet acceptance of life’s wounds and gifts is the essence of the Brazilian vibe. To do something with “bossa” means to do it with innate flair and charm. A quality Randolph-Wright, despite his play’s shortcomings, will never lack.

--Charlotte Stoudt

The Night Is a Child,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 p.m. and 8p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7p.m. Sunday. 2p.m. matinee Wednesday Sept. 23. No 8 p.m. performances Sept. 8, 16, and 23. Ends Oct. 4. $32-$67. (626) 356-7529 . Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Top photo: JoBeth Williams, left, and Sybyl Walker in "The Night Is a Child." Bottom photo: Monette Magrath, Tyler Pierce and JoBeth Williams.