nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
October 8, 2011
Nightlands by Sylvan Oswald is a big beautiful play which covers a staggering amount of ground. Themes include astrology, sexuality, class, love, feminism and the civil rights movement. Director Tamilla Woodard and the designers have expressed the play with a sparse minimalist style. Instead of clarifying the big ideas of the text, this abstraction often made it harder for me to get swept away in it. Which is a shame, because there is some terrific acting and great moments in the play which are left feeling disconnected.
Nightlands begins as the story of Netta Klein (played by the outstanding Polly Lee). She is a wig saleswoman in 1964 Philadelphia, in an unhappy marriage, who develops an interest in astrology. She discovers Ivy Silver (Rachel Leslie), an African American astrologer with a radio talk show. Netta books an appointment with Ivy and it changes Netta’s world. Throughout the play we are reminded that in 1964 the civil rights movement was erupting everywhere. This palpable tension and uncertainty between blacks and whites is a strong current running through the play. As Ivy and Netta’s relationship deepens, the personal story gives way to the political story.
The actors do an admirable job of trying to make this work. They are accompanied by a colorless set which holds some curved sliding panels and four chairs—two in a separate area of the stage with a microphone signify the radio studio (designed by Jim Findlay). There are barely any props. Luckily the fun costumes and wigs (by Emily DeAngelis) let us know this is the early 1960s. We are also occasionally helped out by sound design (Hillary Charnas) to sometimes let us know where the action is taking place and what’s missing on stage. For me the absence of visual guideposts made a difficult story to tell in the first place a little more difficult to follow than it needed to be. For example, we are told that Russ (Netta’s husband) works (or worked?) at the post office. There is a fun movement sequence where he packs boxes of pencils without the aid of props. Because the script mentioned a post office, at first I thought he was sorting mail. Scenes slide into one another and blend without signifiers of time or space. Also the actors speak away from each other frequently. They are often staged in an orbiting way with one character moving around another. I found this more distancing than helpful in terms of my involvement in the play. The actors often seemed like they were moving a certain way or avoiding looking at each other because the director told them to, not because their characters needed to. Something about this play just hasn’t gelled together yet.
However, there are also some poignant moments that make Nightlands really worthwhile. A lot of the dialogue is really lovely and heartbreaking. I loved it when Netta talks about her husband and how she’s always surprised when she sees him in person because her whole marriage doesn’t feel real. Ivy’s son Mason (played by Hubert Point-Du Jour) also has a great monologue about jazz and how he sees the dialogue of the civil rights movement through that. The scenes between the salesladies as they gossip about Netta and the astrologer on the radio are also fun.
There are also many attempts at connection that fail beautifully, where the personal struggle mirrors the societal struggle of the time. When Netta first shows up to meet Ivy at her home on the other side of town she says all the wrong things about the neighborhood which Ivy finally has to admit is just Netta not knowing any better. When we see Ivy’s son and Netta’s husband (Michael Milligan) at work together, there are all these little moments where I thought, “oh, this is where they’ll connect.” But there is just too much defensive baggage between them to let it happen. These scenes play out like emotional dances, aching in their discomfort and very fully invested in by the actors. This then creates a wonderful platform so that when characters DO eventually connect, find common ground, take a stand, etc. the punch it packs is so much more significant.
Netta’s character talks about the point when you realize that what you’ve always done (which is what has always been expected of you) isn’t the choice you want to make anymore. There’s this failure of choosing where at first you keep doing the same thing because it seems too difficult to change, and no one can see the struggle you’re having. The whole play lives best when it’s on that precipice of deciding which way to fall.
In the same sense, the production seems to still be trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. I admire that the production, not only the characters, realize that they have a choice on how to do it. Exploring more abstract tactics to tell the story doesn’t always work. But it’s also refreshing to see this brave New Georges team trying unexpected alternatives. If you dismiss the shortcuts, how do you communicate the heart of the story or, for that matter, ignite the revolution?