By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A suburban kid in Brookline, Massachusetts — a good kid, a fine student, a personable young man — goes on a killing spree at his local school, leaving dozens of children and teachers dying in pools of blood. Charles Randolph-Wright’s play, The Night Is A Child, in its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse (it premiered last year at Milwaukee Rep), studies the family of the teenage killer, who took his own life in the bloodbath, concentrating years later on the mother, a widow named Harriet (JoBeth Williams). On the anniversary of the rampage, Harriet goes AWOL to Rio de Janeiro, thereby mystifying her concerned adult son and daughter (Tyler Pierce and Monette Magrath) as to her whereabouts.
For a moment, the structure looks a bit like Tony Kushner’s Homebody, Kabul, about an American female scholar who disappears into Afghanistan and the upset it causes her pursuing family. But where Kushner’s heroine is prompted by irrepressible curiosity about a land far away, as well as a certain ennui, Randolph-Wright’s protagonist is motivated by the intersection of memory and despondency, and she’s chasing a cure. Brazil, or a tourist bureau version of it, is ensnared in her childhood fantasies. She arrives not speaking a word of Portuguese, yet she stumbles upon a vivacious, native guide named Bia (Sybyl Walker), whose sweet energy, as well as that of an inexplicably accommodating hotel owner named Joel (Maceo Oliver), land her a room on the otherwise overbooked Ipanema beachfront. Joel must have had a reason for canceling somebody else’s reservation in order to make room for Harriet. If he were charmed by her befuddlement borne of being in a foreign country — for which she’s taken no pains to prepare by learning even the rudiments of the language spoken there — it was a charm I missed.
My experience abroad is that even the slightest effort to learn the language is welcomed and regarded as a compliment. Harriet, however, has made no such effort, and the extent of her investment in learning about Brazil and its culture is having listened to Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66 during her youth. So why Joel would randomly cancel the reservation of one guest in order to make space for this tourist-in-distress is the first in a series of improbabilities that form the termite-infested crossbeams of Randolph-Wright’s play. If Harriet had fled the physical comfort of the U.S. only to find herself on the streets of Ipanema (rather than in a plush hotel overlooking the beach), that could have been the start of an interesting play about the kind of spiritual sojourn this Post-It note of a drama pretends to be.
Bia sways with the kind of Brazilian sensuality found, I guess, in the nightclubs there, and Harriet’s shock upon learning that Bia is a Harvard-trained physician provides the play’s welcome if de rigueur commentary on American arrogance. Harriet, however, too is trying to sway and to somehow use that Ipaneman sun to bleach out the grief over her lost son, the carnage he inflicted, and the hostile-curious stares from the denizens of Brookline. Among the play’s strengths is that she doesn’t discuss her tragedy for a long time but chooses instead to bask in the romance of her fantasy refuge. (Harriet has no plans to return to the U.S. — but she’s going to pay for this new life without a checkout date in a beachfront hotel, how?) Among the play’s other weaknesses is that eventually she does finally reveal what her son did — not that she tells it but how she tells it, as though auditioning for a lead on the Women’s Entertainment Network. And then the rampage is played out in a corner of the stage, in flashback, as though this were the movie we just saw Harriet audition for.
Tyler Pierce doubles as the killer, Michael, and as Harriet’s living son, Brian, because Michael and Brian were twins. Brian is an alcoholic with a failing marriage, while his sister, Jane, who accompanies him to look for their mother — actually, he accompanies her — works as a lawyer and has control issues. And as Harriet draws ever closer to the dangers of the Voodoo priests in order to make contact with her lost son — she must discover from Michael why he acted as he did — Jane and Brian show up in lukewarm pursuit.
The problem isn’t with the core idea — a family coping with grief and trauma — but with the treatment of that overwhelming sadness, or the lack of treatment. Everyone warns Harriet about the dangers of messing with Voodoo, yet that ritual leads only to the flashback of what Harriet already knew. She came all the way to Brazil for that? And we came all the way to Pasadena? She could have at least been threatened with being boiled in a pot, or something.